Honor exam to put brakes on cheating

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Author: John Nagy ’00M.A.

Sad to say, but it’s not hard to find evidence of cheating these days in America’s high schools and colleges. A 2005 study conducted by the Center for Academic Integrity at Duke University polled 50,000 undergraduates on more than 60 campuses and found that 70 percent of the participants had engaged in some form of cheating.

The same study, one of many in recent years to document alarming levels of poor ethical reasoning and behavior among students, found that such technologies as the Internet, text messaging and camera phones make cheating easier and, therefore, more alluring. It also confirmed the effectiveness of student honor codes and committees, which reduce cheating levels by a quarter to a half.

Small wonder then that Notre Dame is using technology to reinforce students’ understanding of the University’s recently revised Academic Code of Honor. Freshmen and other incoming students spent time this summer clicking their way through an online tutorial that required them to read the honor code and think about the importance of honesty and integrity. The idea is to make cheating more difficult, at least at the level of decision-making.

A series of case studies exercised the students’ ethical reasoning in situations they will encounter at some point during their studies at Notre Dame: taking tests, working with research data, properly citing others’ work and collaborating with other students.

What difference did it make? Time will tell, but students had to successfully complete the tutorial’s multiple-choice questions before they could sign the honor pledge. No signature, no enrollment. Eighty-five percent passed the test the first time.

That was roughly the rate that the tutorial’s creators expected, says Thomas Flint ’80Ph.D., the professor of philosophy and honor code committee member who led the effort along with Associate Provost Dennis Jacobs.

“We wanted to make the tutorial tough enough so that students probably wouldn’t pass if they did it unthinkingly or without reading the Student Guide, but not so tough that most of them needed multiple attempts to get through it,” Flint says. “I’m not sure that the success rate tells us much, if anything, about the moral development of the incoming students.”

Flint notes that not having time to do work honestly is often a factor in alleged honor-code violations. Whether it is a case of being overloaded with course work or one of simple procrastination matters little. Time, or the lack of it, triggers temptation.

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