June 24, 2024

Do University Honor Codes Work?

Rick Garnett over at ProfsBlawg asked his readers about student honor codes and whether they work. His readers, who seem to be mostly lawyers and law students, chimed in with quite a few comments, most of them negative.

I have dealt with honor codes at two institutions. My undergraduate institution, Caltech, has a simply stated and all-encompassing honor code that is enforced entirely by the students. My sense was that it worked very well when I was there. (I assume it still does.) Caltech has a small (800 students) and relatively homogeneous student body, with a student culture that features less student versus student competitiveness than you might expect. Competition there tends to be student versus crushing workload. The honor code was part of the social contract among students, and everybody appreciated the benefits it provided. For example, you could take your final exams at the time and place of your choosing, even if they were closed-book and had a time limit; you were trusted to follow the rules.

Contrasting this to the reports of Garnett’s readers, I can’t help but wonder if honor codes are especially problematic in law schools. There is reportedly more cutthroat competition between law students, which could be more conducive to ethical corner-cutting. Competitiveness is an engine of our adversarial legal system, so it’s not surprising to see law students so eager to win every point, though it is disappointing if they do so by cheating.

I’ve also seen Princeton’s disciplinary system as a faculty member. Princeton has a student-run honor code system, but it applies only to in-class exams. I don’t have any first-hand experience with this system, but I haven’t heard many complaints. I like the system, since it saves me from the unpleasant and trust-destroying task of policing in-class exams. Instead, I just hand out the exams, then leave the room and wait nearby to answer questions.

Several years ago, I did a three-year term on Princeton’s Student-Faculty Committee on Discipline, which deals with all serious disciplinary infractions, whether academic or non-academic, except those relating to in-class exams. This was hard work. We didn’t hear a huge number of cases, but it took surprisingly long to adjudicate even seemingly simple cases. I thought this committee did its job very well.

One interesting aspect of this committee was that faculty and students worked side by side. I was curious to see any differences between student and faculty attitudes toward the disciplinary process, but it turned out there were surprisingly few. If anything, the students were on average slightly more inclined to impose stronger penalties than the faculty, though the differences were small and opinions shifted from case to case. I don’t think this reflected selection bias either; discussions with other students over the years have convinced me that students support serious and uniform punishment for violators. So I don’t think there will be much difference in the outcomes of a student-run versus a faculty-run disciplinary process.

One lesson from Garnett’s comments is that an honor code will die if students decide that enforcement is weak or biased. Here the secrecy of disciplinary processes, which is of course necessary to protect the accused, can be harmful. Rumors do circulate. Sometimes they’re inaccurate but can’t be corrected without breaching secrecy. For example, when I was on Princeton’s discipline committee, some students believed that star athletes or students with famous relatives would be let off easier. This was untrue, but the evidence to contradict it was all secret.

Academic discipline seems to have a major feedback loop. If students believe that the secret disciplinary processes are generally fair and stringent, they will be happy with the process and will tend to follow the rules. This leaves the formal disciplinary process to deal with the exceptions, which a good process will be able to handle. Students will buy in to the premise of the system, and most people will be happy.

If, on the other hand, students lose their trust in the fairness of the system, either because of false rumors or because the system is actually unfair, then they’ll lose their aversion to rule-breaking and the system, whether honor-based or not, will break down. Several of Garnett’s readers tell a story like this.

One has to wonder whether it makes much difference in practice whether a system is formally honor-based or not. Either way, students have an ethical duty to follow the rules. Either way, violations will be punished if they come to light. Either way, at least a few students will cheat without getting caught. The real difference is whether the institution conspicuously trusts the students to comply with the rules, or whether it instead conspicuously polices compliance. Conspicuous trust is more pleasant for everybody, if it works.

[Feel free to talk about your own experiences in the comments. I’m especially eager to hear from current or past Princeton students.]


  1. RiceGrad says

    I also graduated from Rice and I really believe that the reason that the honor code is perceived to be so successful at this University is because most who do choose to violate are quite good at doing so. Thus said, I feel like there is almost an underlying competitiveness of who is the better cheater. As stated above, 75% of students don’t trust other students not to cheat…and in my opinion this is because if you do choose to cheat you won’t be taking the chance of telling anyone except your closest friends and in most cases no one at all.

  2. I agree with your statement about the honor codes at law school. I was falsly accused of cheating off of another students paper for a class at my school. I had to retain counsel and lose a friend. I wanted to believe that it was a misunderstanding but after the trial it was clear to me that she was a liar. She would do anything, including stab a friend in the back to save her own skin under this “code”. However, there is no discovery process for these trials and no rules of evidence. I had a trial last night and I will probably be found guilty for something I did not do based on a piece of fabricated evidence with no way for me to combat it. These “honor” codes in professional schools can ruin a person’s life just as a criminal accusation would ruin it, but there are no rules in place to protect students from the lies of other students or the distorted facts as are in place for a criminal proceeding.

  3. I know two students who are currently in college, and I know that while one of them takes the take-home test through the internet, the other one googles the answers on a separate computer. Then they switch places. It makes me really mad when I see it happening.

  4. Rich Gibbs says

    I also graduated from Princeton about 30 years ago. I didn’t have any direct contact with the “mechanism” of the honor code, other than writing the pledge on every exam,. But I think that everyone I knew (including myself) took it seriously. Perhaps I was just naive, but I never suspected anyone of cheating on an exam. I’m sure that it happened sometimes, but I’m sure it was rare. There were instances of people cutting corners on assignments by using someone else’s work (not technically covered by the honor code, AFAIK), but those usually were dealt with pretty quickly and effectively by peer pressure — it’s hard to use someone else’s work when no one will talk to you.

    I think if you want people to choose to act honorably, you almost have to give them the opportunity to do otherwise.

  5. At Stanford, the level of laxity on exam-taking depends on the department. In engineering, the students are generally more interested in learning and doing more than in grades, so you would be able to take exams on your own time if necessary. Many final exams are take-home exams, though almost never closed-book.

    However, in other departments such as undergraduate biology, where there are pre-meds fighting for top grades to qualify for med school, neither the students nor staff would be comfortable with any such thing. A closed-book exam would never be taken anywhere but in the classroom, because most students would believe that there would be too great of a temptation for some students to cheat if they could take the exam at home.

    The main commonly-followed and visible part of Stanford’s honor code is that professors and teaching staff are not in the room during exams.

  6. Dartmouth College has an honor code, and though I’ve never witnessed violations myself, there have definitely been some problems.

    The most infamous incident was a horrendously-taught CS class for non-majors where the professor left a homework answer key (or some such) in an unprotected web directory. Server logs showed a large minority of the class looked at the answers, IIRC.

    These incidents aside, the Dartmouth honor code takes a very reasonable approach to collaboration: You must disclose it, generally with names. As long as you’re honest, the worst than can happen is a zero for the assignment. (As opposed to the typical punishment of a 9-month suspension for a first offense.)

    CS professors typically strongly encourage collaboration on everything but the write-up, and some of the alogrithms classes are enormously hard if you don’t at least talk the problems over in a group.

  7. I have gone to undergrad in computer science at a liberal arts college, graduate school in a large state university in computer science (and served as a TA there), and law school at a private university. I did not see a big difference between the “honor” of students at law school versus at computer science graduate school.

    It actually seems more difficult to “cheat” at law school since your entire grade in a course is typically based on one final written, completely open book examination at the end of the semester. In contrast, in computer science graduate school, there are mid-terms, finals, quizzes, and problem sets that amount to one’s grade, so there are different opportunities to collaborate and perhaps push the line between collaboration and cheating, particularly with problem sets. My own observations were that international graduate students tended to have past relationships with more senior students from their countries who had recently taken the same classes and had saved all the solutions from the problem sets (which did not significantly change from semester to semester) and were able to provide the solutions to the “new class” in this manner. As such, one could observe teams of students “collaborating” by looking at past solutions. This was a bit frustrating for those who did not have the solutions and therefore took significant more time to do the problem sets.

    I know very little about the honor code area – I did not read any honor codes at the institutions that I attended (although they may have been referred to in lectures, etc.), simply because an honor code seemed to be self-explanatory (perhaps except for the borderline cases which I did not intend to get involved in). However, I wonder how extensive these codes are – do they impose, for example, an obligation on those who observe what they feel to be cheating or breaking the honor code to report such instances?

  8. Caltech sounds a lot like my alma mater in this regard. I went to a small school where ” Competition…tends to be student versus crushing workload” as well. It was a huge shock my senior year to take the GRE – and have to go back to proctored, high security exams (damn, those proctors can be annoying.)

    I also think you are right about conspicious trust being the better option, if available. We actualy re-wrote the social honor code my first year and the school sort of formalized the oath, but not the method of enforcement. Although it was a minor process for most students, it think this helped fuel the idea that it was our honor code, not the administrations, at least while I was there. While our academic honor code was probably rather detailed (I’m not sure I ever read it, I just assumed it covered the obvious stuff) our new social honor code was one line about respecting oneself and others. Violations were rare, and considered very serious stuff.

    “Collaboration on problem sets was standard, and…anything short of a hidden Feynman dictating answers into one’s ear would have been of little use.” Heh. Another physics major here. Probably one of the reasons why I never really paid much attention to our academic honor code: even the obvious stuff rarely applied.

    I agree with Nathan about secrecy in the disciplinary process, especially when “the secrecy extend[s] even to the accused being unable to discuss what had happened after the process had concluded.” One of my friends got busted for having a dorm party where not only was both alcohol and under 21s present (all of us included), but where non-student guests were left to wander the halls unsupervised and eventually left back door propped open (HUGE no-no as this was at an all women’s campus and we had rules about guests and locked doors for safety reasons). I have no idea how guilt or punishment was determined, but it was obvious she was guilty and I don’t recall her having been required to keep anything quiet during the disciplinary process – I just never heard much ’cause she was a friend of a friend. It was also understood that the bigger problem was the consequences of the hostess having had too much to drink to monitor her guests, not that we were drinking, period. The punishment itself was quite open – she had to host some “drink responsibly” event and apologize to the dorm. I can’t imagine that either honor code would have worked as well without the transparancy and community involvement in punishment, when applicable. Besides, gossip travels fast at small schools, how do you plan on keeping stuff like that secret?

  9. I graduated from Princeton 30 years ago and I suspect I can still remember the Honor Code pledge I wrote on every exam I took there. I never had any direct encounters with violations of the code, but sat through my share of exams and certainly believed that everyone else took the Honor Code as seriously as I did. It was also a much better experience than having to proctor final exams when I was a graduate student elsewhere.

  10. For a physics major at the institution where I went, an honor code would have been mostly superfluous. Collaboration on problem sets was standard, and for the exams (mostly open-book) anything short of a hidden Feynman dictating answers into one’s ear would have been of little use. In the more general population, I think there was a perception that the disciplinary process was uneven at best, particularly because accused students’ parents were typically in a position to retain serious counsel.

    (On the issue of a law-school honor code, I find the notion of a system where students in training for a few-holds-barred adversarial career would voluntarily step well back from the edge of ethical slopes somewhat problematic.)

  11. Nathan Williams says

    MIT didn’t operate under an honor code, so I don’t have much personal experience with that – I did police exams as a TA, but my role seemed to be much more about answering questions than making sure that people’s eyes were where they should be. We did catch cheating in assignments, though, which was pretty sad.

    One aspect of this that has always bothered me is the idea of secrecy in the disciplinary process – you say “which is of course necessary to protect the accused”. We have made an entirely different decision in society at large, and it has never been clear to me why full disclosure makes less sense in a university setting. Does the fear of slander by malicious accusations really outweigh the confidence in the system that comes from transparency? My experience is that there was frequently mistrust about the fairness of the disciplinary process, based largely on this secrecy, and the secrecy extended even to the accused being unable to discuss what had happened after the process had concluded.

  12. David Price says

    I also went to Rice, and can pretty much second dr2chase – the Honor Code was perceived to be fairly enforced and rarely violated. I can recall only two incidents during my four years there when I came to believe someone had violated the Code and not gotten caught. (In the first instance, I left the room before my belief had the opportunity to mature into knowledge, which would require me to report the student in question; in the second, I learned of the violation after my graduation, meaning that I was no longer under any duty to report.)

    Probably the best thing about the Rice system is that the Honor Code applies only to graded academic work: it includes no nebulous exhortations to behave as gentlemen, ladies, or “good citizens.” Discipline for nonacademic violations was handed out under different standards by a different body. As an honor council member said to my orientation group, “If you burn down [your rival dorm], we don’t care.”

    Punishment tends to be severe – frequently an F in the course involved, and sometimes a suspension of one or two semesters. The student body generally supports this level of sanctions, out of a feeling that they’d prefer not to allow cheaters into their community. The major source of Honor Code leniency was actually the administration; my senior year, the student Honor Council successfully fought to add formal procedures and accountability to administrative clemency appeals. Previously, administration officials had reduced without explanation the penalties assessed against many students found to be in violation. The Honor Council’s record-keeping – it publishes anonymized abstracts of its cases – is one of its great strengths, lending some transparency to a process that is by necessity secret.

    The major sticking point at Rice, a Division I-A school, was the perceived flouting of the code by student-athletes. No official statistics were kept, but the conventional wisdom had it that athletes, who represented about 10-12 percent of the student body, accounted for nearly half of Honor Code convictions. Every few years, there would be a cheating scandal involving several athletes. There was, however, no perception that athletes were given special treatment; if anything, complaints were that the Honor Council was biased against athletes. (I personally don’t believe the Council had any such bias.)

    The system worked, but it worked because of a bottom-up culture of trust that it both sustained and was sustained by. Most students abided by the code because they felt an ethical obligation, and for the most part, they trusted their fellow students to abide by it too. An honor code is definitely not something that can be imposed top-down by an administration, and it’s not something that can be used to solve an existing serious cheating problem: if everyone knows there’s cheating going on, you can’t issue a command that students suddenly begin to trust each other.

    Trust is sometimes hard to come by, especially in competitive programs like law school where better performance is linked directly to getting better-paying, higher-status jobs. I remember an incident in my first-year patents course at the University of Texas: the professor, a Rice alum, suggested that the exam be self-administered in the Rice style. This would solve a number of administrative problems and make everybody’s life quite a bit easier, but it would also provide an opportunity for exam-takers to spend more than the allowed time period working. The prof asked the students if they trusted each other not to cheat on the exam.

    Three-quarters of the class didn’t.

  13. Jordan Vance says

    It seems that the policy has become more defined, but still leaves that nebulous point of “how much help is too much” or “which help is outside the bounds” other than code help.

  14. On the comment before mine, and “collaboration guidelines”. My recollection of the Rice honor code was that it was rather binary — if it’s pledged, there’s no collboration, if it’s not pledged, it is not an honor code issue. There’s some gray in there, obviously — you can get help on your homework that you cannot get on a test, yet it would be “wrong” to simply have someone else do your homework for you.

  15. Rice has (had?) one much like what you describe for Caltech; the school’s not as small, but the honor code was part of the culture, perceived to be fairly enforced, and there were clear benefits from the trust (I took take-home tests in the pub, etc.). The statement of the pledge is also simple and concise enough that YOU write it your very own self on every pledged assignment.

    I was surprised to see Stanford’s honor code, which (in constrast) was so long and verbose that it came pre-printed on the blue-books. Maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t, but it was foreign to me (I wasn’t a student, my wife was).

    (On my honor, I have neither given nor received any aid on this blog comment.)

  16. Jordan Vance says

    I didn’t have any contact with the S-FDC or the Honor Council at Princeton. I suppose that might have been considered a good thing. In high school, I was a member of the Honor Council there (a student run body in charge of adjudicating violations of the honor code). In general, we did a fine job. The bigger issue was enforcing toleration of the honor code. See, the honor code stated “I will not lie, cheat, or steal, nor will I tolerate anyone who does.” The toleration point was a sticky point that came up rarely, but when it did was very difficult to deal with. If someone waits until asked whether people were cheating, and then comes forward, that’s a violation, but at the same time, they were, eventually, doing the right thing. And yet, in doing the right thing, we were, by the guidelines set forth, supposed to punish them.

    As for the Honor Code at Princeton, I didn’t see much of a difference, so my comments here will be in a different vein about a particular “rule” set forth by the CS department. Perhaps this was just me, but I found the “Collaboration Guidelines” to be nebulous at best. Was this above and beyond the normal “don’t copy or let someone copy your code and algorithms?” The enforcement and definition of the guideline here seemed to be up to the professor: each class seemed to set different limits on what collaboration was. I think I dealt with it as many people did: Shying away from discussing the projects at hand. If the goal of the collaboration guideline was to have students discuss their issues with the preceptors/TAs, that’s fine, but it was never clearly spelled out that I can remember.