Why Honor Codes Reduce Student Cheating

Some professors may only encounter student cheating rarely -- or even never at all. And chances are that those faculty teach at schools with a strong honor code.
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Around the country, college professors are sitting down with stacks of final papers and blue book exams to be graded. And, as happens every semester, quite a few professors will experience a sinking feeling when they stumble upon written passages that don't seem right. Maybe they will be tipped off by language that is too sophisticated or polished for a college student. Or maybe they will read a passage in one blue book that is exactly the same as that in another.

Cheating is pervasive on college campuses and most professors have stories to tell about discovering plagiarism. Exam cheating is common too, and the University of Central Florida is still reeling from a huge mid-term cheating scandal that involved some 200 students earlier this fall.

But the good news is that some professors may only encounter student cheating rarely -- or even never at all. And chances are that those faculty teach at schools with a strong honor code.

Rampant student cheating has become so familiar that it is tempting to think that the problem is intractable. That is wrong. Some colleges have much less cheating than others. And the existence of honor codes is a key factor. The lower rates of cheating at honor code schools has been observed by researchers since William Bowers wrote his path-breaking 1964 study, "Student Dishonesty and its Control in Colleges." Bowers' finding was reaffirmed in a 1993 study by Donald McCabe and Linda Trevino that specifically explored the impact of honor codes and found that there was less cheating in honor code environments. Others scholars have found the same thing.

In 1999, McCabe and Trevino, along with Kenneth D. Butterfield, revisited the issue of honor codes in a study aimed at better understanding why such codes make a difference. Their research found sharp contrasts between the outlook of students at code and non-code schools:

students at institutions with honor codes frame the issue of academic integrity in a fundamentally different way from students at non-code institutions... Although honor code students feel the same pressures from the larger society as their non-code colleagues, they are significantly less likely to use such pressures to rationalize or justify their own cheating. Rather, they refer to the honor code as an integral part of a culture of integrity that permeates their institutions.

So what is it about honor codes that helps create a "culture of integrity?" The answer seems to lie in the way that codes foster a unique sense of community on campus. Honor codes stress the notion that students are responsible for policing each other and ensuring a level academic playing field. Many honor systems are also run partly or wholly by students -- with students helping orchestrate how cases are handled and making judgments about punishment. As McCabe and his colleagues wrote: "Most code students see themselves as part of a moral community that offers significant trust and freedom and has corresponding rules and expectations that must be honored to preserve that trust and freedom."

This is social contract theory 101. People are more likely to obey rules when they feel like they are stakeholders in a community and when they believe they have a say in how the rules are made and enforced. This is the premise not just of democracy, but also of our criminal justice system -- which stresses the importance of "a jury of one's peers." When you're answerable to your peers, as opposed to some official authority, you're more likely to behave.

Many schools with rampant cheating have yet to import this elementary insight into efforts to promote academic integrity. The judicial systems that police student conduct are largely run by administrators on many non-code campuses and often feel top-down. Academic integrity rules are typically buried in student handbooks that nobody ever reads. And there may be few efforts to build a strong sense of awareness and "buy-in" among students about integrity rules.

Honor codes aren't the only way to create a strong sense of moral community on campuses and reduce student cheating. Schools without honor codes can be successful in doing this in some instances and there are various ways to create stronger community, as I have discussed elsewhere. Nor is the existence of a code alone enough to stop cheating; there also must be active and ongoing efforts to foster a culture of integrity.

Still, we now have over 40 years of research that shows that honor codes make a difference. So here's a question: Given that up to three quarters of college students cheat -- a dishonesty crisis of epic scale on our campuses -- what isn't every non-code school working feverishly to create an honor code?