In just three semesters at Rider University, I’ve encountered one significant episode of plagiarism, and a couple of students who together cheated on a pair of quizzes. Each incident was deeply disappointing, and each time I found myself thinking and worrying in the middle of the night about the issues and academic consequences for these students.
I invested a significant amount of time considering how I, as a professor, can be more explicit in my expectations; how I can design assignments and exams to make academic dishonesty more difficult for students; and, unfortunately, how I can become a better detective to identify future attempts at cheating and plagiarism.
While these are all things I should and will do, I began to think more deeply about what Rider’s students can actively do to embrace a culture of academic honesty, independent work and authentic learning.
A few universities and colleges have long-standing honor codes to emphasize these values. At nearby Princeton University, according to the institution’s website, the honor code was launched by students in 1893. Suspected cheating is reported by faculty or students to an honor committee made up of students who investigate the matter, hold confidential hearings and recommend appropriate penalties to the dean of students.
At Connecticut College, where I was an undergraduate, a similar system attracted me to the school. The expectations of academic honesty and the role of the honor code is explained in depth and emphasized to all incoming students. A group of students are elected by their peers to serve on an honor council, which is an arm of the Student Government Association. A pair of faculty members advise the council as needed, but inquiry and decisions about suspected academic dishonesty are made by the student members.
At both Connecticut College and Princeton, students write and sign a pledge of honesty at the start of every exam, test or quiz (“I promise not to give or receive aid on this exam” is the simple oath at my alma mater).
Because of this affirmative pledge at the start of tests and quizzes, and the mutual trust established between students and faculty, tests at Connecticut College are not proctored – professors pass out the materials and leave the room. Students are expected to complete tests silently and independently. In addition, the majority of final exams are self-scheduled. During finals days, students decide when they are prepared, then pick up and complete the test at an exam center where three testing periods are conducted daily.
Do honor codes eliminate cheating or plagiarism? Of course not. But could placing a system of academic honesty into student hands – including affirmative pledges signed by individual students, as well as a student-run honor council – ultimately promote integrity and academic excellence? I can’t help but think that allowing students active ownership of an honor system would promote the ideals behind it. If embraced, it could boost the value of a Rider degree. It could also draw future students to Rider and become a strength for our students and our institution.
Professor of Communication and Journalism
Printed in the 02/03/16 issue.