Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Research shows strength of traditional honor codes

A traditional honor system really can make students less likely to cheat, according to research by a Randolph College student and two professors.

For the past year, Megan Hageman ’13 has worked with psychology professors Beth Schwartz and Holly Tatum to study the concept of academic integrity and learn more about how honor codes affect academic behavior.

Schwartz, the Thoresen Professor of Psychology and assistant dean of the College, said this research could help all schools, including colleges, promote honesty in academic behavior. “A lot of us understand what motivates students to cheat. Now it is time to understand what we can do to motivate students to have academic integrity.”

The interest in studying academic integrity developed after Schwartz, Tatum, and Jerry Wells ’12 co-wrote a chapter about the teaching and learning environment at Randolph College, which is guided by a longstanding traditional honor code. Schwartz saw that there was not enough research into the effectiveness of honor systems. During the 2011 Summer Research Program, she asked Megan Hageman to sort through existing research on the subject and choose topics for further study. They decided to study the way different kinds of honor codes affect student honesty.

Like most traditional-style honor codes, the Randolph honor system includes a student-run adjudication board, unproctored exams, and trust that students will report dishonest behavior.  These systems aim to build a culture of personal responsibility and integrity.

Some schools use a modified honor code, which is often run by the school administration or faculty and lacks many of the features, such as a student-run judicial process, emphasized by the traditional honor systems.

Hageman and Schwartz designed a survey to gauge students’ attitudes toward various behaviors that are sometimes encountered in college. They asked students to read a list of questionable behaviors, such as turning in the same paper for two different classes or consulting a smart phone for help on a test, and rate them as honest or dishonest. They were also asked whether they would report the behavior.

More than 750 students at eight private liberal arts colleges took the survey last year. The results showed that students in colleges with traditional honor systems were more likely to view questionable behaviors as dishonest. Students in a school with a modified honor code answered almost identically to the students in schools without any honor code.

“Previous research has demonstrated that modified honor systems are supposed to decrease the occurrence of academically dishonest behaviors, but we found that not to be the case,” Hageman said.

Hageman helped Schwartz and Tatum conduct the survey and analyze the data. During this year’s Summer Research Program, she presented the research at a convention of the Association for Psychological Science. Then, she worked with Schwartz to write an article about the research, which they plan to submit to a scholarly journal later this summer.

The next phase of the research, which will form Hageman’s senior project, will seek to determine why a traditional honor code is more effective. If they can identify specific attributes that make a traditional system more effective, other colleges could adopt those features to decrease cheating, Schwartz said.

Hageman said this project has helped her learn more about the process of research and writing, but also about what can make honor codes more effective. She hopes her research can stimulate conversation about how to strengthen honor systems and increase academic honesty in other colleges and at Randolph. “Without talking about academic integrity no one can understand it and it cannot become fully ingrained in the culture of the campus,” she said.