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Do Honor Codes Work?

Friday, Mar. 8, 2013
Gary Pavela, director of academic integrity at Syracuse University, had a simple answer to the question, Do honor codes promote greater academic integrity on college campuses.  Yes.
 
At a talk today sponsored by the Ethics Center, Pavela shared his experiences developing the first "modified honor code" at the University of Maryland in 1991.  As background, Pavela described traditional honor codes at schools like the University of Virginia and the service academies, where the punishment for any violation is expulsion.  Students must sign an honor pledge, and they are obligated to report their classmates if they see cheating.
 
According to Pavela, traditional codes have a clear affect on cheating, even though "the PR is sometimes better than the reality."  For example, honor courts at traditional honor code schools may be reluctant to convict students who are referred to them because they have only one choice of sanction--expulsion.  Also, he reported, "students don't turn each other in."
 
Pavela and the group of students he worked with at Maryland wondered if they could get the same effect by adopting the elements of traditional codes that actually worked.  The Maryland code included:
 
§     Student leadership
§     Serious penalties but not automatic expulsion
§     Education
 
These elements work together in a modified code.  For example, if a student is caught cheating, he or she receives an XF in the class.  This grade is coded on the transcript, "failure due to academic dishonesty."  The student cannot change the F grade, but he or she can get the X removed by taking an academic integrity seminar.
 
The modified code developed at Maryland and later adopted at many other schools does have an impact on the ethical culture of the school, Pavela said.  He cited the work of Donald McCabe, who has been studying academic integrity since 1990.  McCabe found there was less cheating at modified honor code schools than at schools with no code at all, although there was more cheating than at traditional honor code schools.
 
Pavela stressed that honor codes can be a source of pride for students, and that schools that adopt them begin to see results in two to three years.
 

Pavela's talk was part of a multi-year effort at Santa Clara University to develop an honor code system.