Coding Honor into Virtual Classrooms

It’s that time of year when here at UT (and at colleges all across the country), we are concerned about academic dishonesty in a time of online (or mostly online) education. All teachers fear that despite their own best efforts and the utilization of some technological surveillance devices, it is virtually impossible to prevent cheating by those who are determined to cheat if they are taking an exam virtually.

This appears to be on the minds of the folks at the New York Times this week as well.

First, there was a timely op-ed by Dr. Christian Miller, a philosopher who teaches at Wake Forest University and makes the point that honor codes can help minimize academic dishonesty, citing two empirical studies by McCabe et al. and Mazar et al. Dr. Miller believes that he has had success in minimizing academic dishonesty by having his students recite the entire honor code with him and sign it before each exam.

Properly written and applied, honor codes reduce cheating because most people, even students, wish to think of themselves as good people. A reminder of the honor code puts ethics in the students’ frame of reference as they begin their exams and mitigates against ethical fading, where students might be focusing so intently on exam success that the ethical issues facing them drop out of the picture.

McCabe and colleagues write that the research tells us that an honor code “well implemented and strongly embedded in the student culture” can have a beneficial impact. The key is student perceptions of that embeddedness. Certainly, the self-serving bias can push students toward cheating if they feel that they need a good grade to get an internship or qualify for a job interview. And research on the conformity bias tells us that students (and pretty much everyone else) take their cues as to how to act from those around them. If students think that cheating is widespread, they are much more likely to cheat themselves. But if they believe that most of their fellows are following the honor code, they are much more likely to do the same themselves. In other words, the best way to reduce cheating is to reduce cheating.

Second, there was a letter to “The Ethicist,” Dr. Kwame Anthony Appiah of N.Y.U., asking:

A student of mine revealed that he did poorly on my (Zoom, of course) exam because he was on his phone helping his fraternity brothers. I know his cheating isn’t ethical—no dilemma there—but what about my role? What is my responsibility in creating an environment where everyone is on the same plane for evaluation?  —Humberto B.

Unsurprisingly, Dr. Appiah thought that Professor Humberto did have an obligation to prevent students from cheating. We at Ethics Unwrapped could not agree more. This is a moral obligation for professors. Dr. Appiah first recommended that Professor Humberto make cheating harder because that would discourage cheating. No surprise there, but still a fact that many professors seem to forget. Second, and consistent with Dr. Miller’s advice and with the principles of framing and ethical fading, Dr. Appiah noted that “sometimes reminding people of moral ideas can get them to live up to them.” A good honor code, well-publicized and consistently enforced, can serve that purpose.

Consider these other factors:

  • Professors and students often have different views as to what practices are ethical and which are not (Braun et al), so professors must communicate as clearly as they can what conduct is acceptable in their classes and what is not.
  • There is some evidence that higher achievers cheat more (Siniver et al.), which is especially disappointing.
  • Academic cheating is strongly correlated with other forms of cheating that the students are involved in (Kremmer et al.), meaning that a professor’s ability to put a stop to cheating may be limited.

But we still have to try. We owe it to ourselves and we owe it to the students, particularly the honest ones.

 

Sources

Kwame Anthony Appiah, “The Ethicist,” ­New York Times Magazine, Nov. 22, 2020.

Kwame Anthony Appiah, Cosmopolitan (2007).

Kwame Anthony Appiah, The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen (2011).

Kwame Anthony Appiah, The Lies that Bind (2019).

Cara Biasucci & Robert Prentice, Behavioral Ethics in Practice: Why We Sometimes Make the Wrong Decisions (2021).

Robert L. Braun et al., “The Academic Honesty Expectations Gap: An Analysis of Student and Faculty Perspectives,” (2005), available at https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=649765.

Michael Kremmer et al., “Investigating the Probability of Student Cheating: The Relevance of Student Characteristics, Assessment Items, Perceptions of Prevalence and History of Engagement,” International Journal of Education Integrity (2011).

Nina Mazar et al., “The Dishonesty of Honest People: A Theory of Self-Concept Maintenance,” Journal of Marketing Research (2008)

Donald McCabe et al., “Cheating in Academic Institutions: A Decade of Research,” Ethics & Behavior 11(3): 219 (2001).

Christian Miller, “Just How Dishonest Are Most Students?, New York Times, Nov. 15, 2020.

Christian Miller, The Character Gap: How Good Are We? (2018).

Christian Miller, Moral Character: An Empirical Theory (2013).

Christian Miller, Character & Moral Psychology (2014).

Erez Siniver et al., “Do Higher Achievers Cheat Less? An Experiment of Self-Revealing Individual Cheating,” (2017), available at https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2960518.

 

Videos

Framing:  https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/framing

Ethical Fading: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/ethical-fading

Conformity Bias: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/conformity-bias

Self-serving Bias: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/self-serving-bias

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