Sept. 14, 2001
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NEWS COLUMN
A time of mourning

Honor System's credibility may be put on trial this fall
Carrying the Honor Code into cyberspace
Honoring the code: How to promote academic honesty

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Bill McAllister
Matt Kelly

Carrying the Honor Code into cyberspace

By Matt Kelly

In the days of the Internet, new strategies are needed to wrestle with plagiarism and cheating, agreed faculty members, with some favoring a strong-arm approach and others advocating more dialogue about the importance of honesty.

What strategies work best, however, was debated by professors and instructors at a meeting on Sept. 7, sponsored by the Teaching Resource Center. While two leaders from the center walked back and forth in the front of the room, a small group of teachers clustered in several rows exchanging ideas.

Bill McAllister, history lecturer and faculty consultant at the Teaching Resource Center, presented an array of national statistics showing what percentage of students would cheat under what circumstances. He suggested broaching the topic directly with the students, because cheating increases when there is a perception that the instructor does not care.

“With the honor system there is a perception that you shouldn’t talk about cheating because it impugns the integrity of the students,” he said, noting that statistically schools with honor codes did better combating cheating.

Psychology professor Jonathan Haidt cautioned that populations are not governed by what they know to be true in the abstract. He said with situational ethics, people will come up with reasons to justify what they have done.

When McAllister asked if there is an acceptable level of cheating, Haidt suggested be between 1 and 4 percent, so cheating would not be considered the norm, making it unattractive to people.

One instructor said he was less concerned about students who cheated to get a D grade than he was about one who cheated to get an A. Haidt suggested that teachers appeal to the student’s nobler motives, such as explaining that they are in school to learn, not get grades.

The instructors were asked to write down or devise their own policy. Otto Freisen, former chair of the biology department, said his standard was that students use no more than three of someone else’s words in a sequence when writing a paper without quotations. He said students are limited to two quotes per paper.

Marva Barnett, a French professor and director of the Teaching Resource Center, said she had operated on the assumption that quotes should be put inside quotation marks and that the students had learned this before they came to her class.

History teacher John Stagg said he was concerned about the Internet, since it made so much more information available to the students. He said in the past, he could generally pick out plagiarism because he was familiar with many of the books in the field, but with an explosion of sources, this has gotten harder.

Haidt said he had uncovered some plagiarism by entering key words from the papers into a search engine and finding the site from which students took material. He suggested that ITC monitor the Web sites students access. Computer instructor Thomas Horton said the University did not have the technology to monitor or log the Web sites students were using and another instructor said that smacked too much of “Big Brother.”

Barnett suggested that instead of working on how to catch cheaters, instructors should make a plain statement on cheating and publicize it, then design the course to make it harder to cheat. She said teachers should raise awareness of why intellectual honesty is important, especially in an era when politicians can be caught in lies without any apparent consequences. She said bringing it up in person with students is more effective than issuing a written statement or asking them to sign a pledge.

Freisen suggested having students write several paragraphs in class to be used as a comparison against papers that are turned in later.

Teachers should broach the topic directly with students, because cheating increaases when there is a perception that the instructor does not care.

Bill McAllister
Faculty Consultant,
Teaching Resource Center

Several of the teachers were concerned about the difference between a 500-student class and 20-student class, feeling that students in larger classes could take advantage of a degree of anonymity.

Horton said he uses Measure of Software Similarity (MOSS), a computer program that can detect shared programs, in his computer science courses. He tells students about the program, which Barnett said fits the idea of making the deterrent public.

A teacher at the McIntire Commerce School said the policy there is that any infractions of the Honor Code will be turned over to the committee, with the idea that even if a student is found not guilty in a trial, the experience itself will be painful enough to act as a deterrent.

Thomas Hall, chair of the Honor Committee, suggested that instructors have clear expectations and be explicit in their beliefs, because students take cues from their teachers. He said teachers need to keep an eye open for students in danger of failing and give them more support, such as directing them to a teaching assistant and the Writing Center.

Hall said some changes have been made in the trial process so it is less confrontational, with discipline for misbehaving counsel. He said the process has been speeded up.

The teachers were also concerned about the single-sanction nature of the Honor Code, under which students convicted of an infraction of the code are expelled. “It’s the death penalty,” one instructor intoned, adding that the severity of the punishment discourages some teachers and other students from reporting incidents.

Hall said that while there is steady complaint about the single sanction, the last time there was a referendum on the Honor Code, 65 percent of the voting students supported the expulsion sanction. At the same time, students admit they are reluctant to turn in other students because of the single sanction.


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