To Cheat or Not to Cheat? It’s Not a Tough Question

On Feb. 4, 2010, the 42nd Faculty Senate convened to discuss the University Honor Code and concerns over an increasing number of Honor Code violations.

Recently, the San Jose Mercury News reported that, “Allegations of cheating at Stanford University have more than doubled in the past decade.” In the past decade, the Office of Judicial Affairs reported 52 and 14 incidences of Honor Code and Fundamental Standard violations, respectively. In the 2008-09 school year, those numbers spiked to 82 and 38.

The Honor Code stipulates that students promote integrity on campus in two ways: by not cheating and by reporting incidences they may happen to witness.  Because Stanford values trust between students and professors, it makes sense that the Administration is strict in its dealings with Honor Code violators.

According to the Judicial Board’s statistics, undergraduates and males are responsible for significantly more Honor Code and Fundamental Standard violations than graduates and females. Last year, there were 82 undergraduate to 41 graduate violations and 76 male to 47 female violations. Contrary to popular belief, the percentage of international student cases of Honor Code violations is much less than that of the general student population.

Cheating is particularly prevalent in computer science (CS) classes. According to long-time computer science professor and Senate member Eric Roberts, the stressful nature of computer science assignments makes cheating very easy. For instance, while computer science students may collaborate with fellow programmers about general ideas on their assignments, they are forbidden from sharing explicit code on their submitted products.

In spite of repeated warnings from computer science professors that submitted work is tested for plagiarism, the number of computer science violations has remained high.

Professor Roberts recently implemented a new strategy to combat the high incidence of cheating in computer science courses. Instead of repeated warnings, Roberts created a grade incentive: because CS assignments take up a lot of time, students feel the assignments – and not the CS final or midterms – should constitute a greater weight in grade calculations. Therefore, for every Honor Code violation in CS 106A and CS 106B, Stanford’s introductory CS courses, Professor Roberts increases the weight of the final and decreases the weight of the assignments in the final grade calculation.

Furthermore, there is incentive to report a classmate. If a student, as opposed to a section leader or faculty member, reports the violation, then there is no penalty in the grade weight distribution.

During the Faculty Senate panel discussion, Undergraduate Senate Chair Varun Sivaram presented a student survey conducted with the Graduate Student Council to measure student opinion of the Honor Code. Approximately 545 undergraduates and 262 graduates answered three questions about the effectiveness of the Honor Code in both theory and practice. Only 55% of undergraduates and 62% of graduate students answered ‘yes’ in response to this question: “If you were in a test situation and observed cheating, would you report this to the Professor?”

Sivaram pointed out that these are not ideal results. If only half of undergraduates report cheating due to apathy, fear of alienation, or lack of motivation, what good is the Honor Code? According to Associate Vice Provost for Student Affairs and Dean of Student Life Chris Griffith, in 2008-2009, faculty and teaching assistants reported 83% and 11% of violations, respectively.

“It doesn’t really vary much in previous years,” Griffith added.

“Previously, we heard the reason might be you wouldn’t want to be ostracized by your fellow students. I found this not to be the case commonly. Rather, most students either find [only] a small incremental benefit of reporting an offense, compared to the effort of telling a professor, or they were willing to rely on other students to report the offense, implying apathy or a collective action problem,” Sivaram said.

Addressing the Faculty Senate, Sivaram continued, “However, I don’t want to suggest that the answer is proctored exams. Students really appreciate the trust you give us in unproctored exams, and we would strongly prefer the status quo to any proctored alternative.”

What can be done to inspire students to take more control in the enforcement of their Honor Code? Professor Roberts’s plan to incentivize good behavior appears to have a lot of potential. When all students have a powerful personal incentive to follow the Honor Code, improved conduct seems likely.

Sivaram outlined his battle plan: “We can do this through a high-profile lecture series on academic integrity. We can introduce a new student orientation event explaining the philosophy behind the Honor Code. And most importantly, I ask that faculty tell us explicitly what their expectations are of students such that we can accept this as a central pillar of Stanford University and uphold our responsibility actively,” he said.

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