From the Community | I ‘cheated’ many times at Stanford. Here are some lessons.

June 21, 2021, 9:20 p.m.

I may have graduated last Sunday, but a glance at my transcript will tell you I wasn’t the best of students in my four years at Stanford University. My GPA is somewhere south of a 3.0. With this in mind, Spring 2019, the last full quarter of my sophomore year, probably seems as unremarkable as any other: B-, B+, B-, C+, B.

However, this quarter was important to me for a different reason: It was when I finally realized how much I had lost from cheating on homework, a cycle that was well-cultivated at Stanford. I decided I was done with it.

And then, to kick off Fall 2019, I accidentally cheated on an exam.

When I say “cheated,” I mean that I broke the Stanford Honor Code. I used a cheat sheet with notes on both sides of the paper, realizing weeks later that cheat sheets on that exam could have notes on only one side. I never mentioned it to the teaching staff, having convinced myself the honest mistake didn’t affect my grade anyway. It was also the only time I cheated on an exam.

The homework incidents from previous years were different, but my reasoning for pushing them aside was similar. After working through my first quarter at Stanford mostly alone (and with no Honor Code violations), I fell into a trap in Winter 2017: I’d start a course with some friends from my dorm, try the homework myself early on and check answers with them each time, but by mid-quarter I was essentially copying their work in my own writing.

I had never cheated in high school, where I seldom collaborated with peers at all.

Stanford’s policies, the lack of education surrounding them and the inconsistency of their enforcement posed a problem. In the courses where I had the most issues, collaboration on homework was encouraged. An example of a policy one instructor gave was “You may collaborate with fellow students, but each of you should turn in your own submission.” What does this even mean, practically? As a sophomore, I was able to twist this language into implying it was okay to copy friends’ work, as I was only really cheating myself. Looking at it again as I type this, I’m still convinced that’s the case given the specific wording of the policy.

Computer Science courses have clearer rules, and rules the instructors enforce more strictly, which might have something to do with the fact that I did not copy my way through the homework in any programming courses I took at Stanford. It was made clear that I should not be looking at other students’ code on assignments. In other courses, where the barrier to copying homework answers was low, my confidence plummeted. I lost faith in my own abilities and eventually gave up on certain courses and even majors.

As a frosh, in just my second quarter at Stanford, my cheating was especially bad: I ended up basically copying friends’ homework answers for two full courses, in one of which I definitely explicitly broke the course policy repeatedly, though I didn’t realize until later. Unsurprisingly, I flopped on the exams in both courses, finishing them with a B- and a C. In a third course that quarter, we were allowed to work in pairs, but in my “splitting” work with a partner they ended up doing most of the problems. I bombed the exams and got a D. I felt pathetic, and I cried a lot.

Winter of my sophomore year was a similar story: I told myself I’d be a “good student,” but ended up copying a lab partner’s work for the homework in two courses. I got a C+ in one of those courses and a C- in the other. This time around, I was too numb to cry, but I did decide the major in question was not for me. And maybe it wasn’t. But had I just withdrawn instead of riding my friends through those courses, I would have at least made that realization earlier.

I ended up retaking each of the five courses above, where I decided the extent to which I had relied on friends was unacceptable, and in retaking those courses I committed no honor code violations. I was never caught or disciplined for my actions in any class. But I didn’t want to graduate with credits I felt I didn’t really earn. And retaking those classes sucked — I barely met the requirements to graduate.

When a system is faulty, it encourages faulty actions among the individuals operating within that system. Stanford’s Honor Code system is without a doubt faulty, and it’s hurting the student body. Here are some things the University could do differently to help keep students like me from veering off course in their college careers:

  1. Start enforcing the honor code seriously for instructors. The policy says, “The faculty will also avoid, as far as practicable, academic procedures that create temptations to violate the Honor Code.” A homework policy as loose as “… turn in your own submission” seems like a faculty violation. It shouldn’t fall on students’ shoulders, especially new ones, to hold instructors accountable when the University can verify the policies in syllabi are reasonable before a course begins.
  2. Be more realistic in posing potential punishments to students. Based on what I’ve seen and heard about from instructors, the “standard sanction” listed on the Stanford website (a one-quarter suspension) is laughably inconsistent with the consequences students actually tend to face. In spring 2020, students who publicly posted answers to a quiz for CS 109 were told they would get a 0 on that one quiz for coming forward, and that was in a quarter where all classes were CR/NC. I’ve heard Computer Science instructors discuss the same sort of policy for students who copy code on programming assignments.
  3. Organize a candid presentation about the Honor Code, by students, for students, but in collaboration with the University, as part of each year’s NSO activities. When it comes to homework, I’ve never gotten the impression that the Honor Code is something taken seriously by many of us. If a clear understanding of the real considerations had been established by peers at the start of my Stanford career, I’m confident I would not have the regrets and frustrations I have today as a graduate.
  4. If teachers are serious about the honor code on homework, have students sign the statement as is done for exams. The current disconnect does send a message. And I for one have never knowingly turned something in where I broke the honor code but still signed off on it.
  5. Build off the precedent set by the pandemic, and work with departments to offer a pass-fail option for all courses that count toward majors, even post-pandemic. If the argument for this during the pandemic was equity for students with different circumstances, then it would be silly to believe that hasn’t applied to the pre-pandemic years. The pass-fail option can reduce the pressure for students to copy friends’ homework answers in hopes of marginally better grades.

Maybe some will read this column and think I ought to be punished further than I have punished myself, despite Stanford University having fostering an environment with no meaningful education nor consistency with respect to its own Honor Code. Perhaps I am unworthy of my degree because I cheated on some homework as a frosh and sophomore, or because I accidentally used both sides of an exam cheat sheet once.

Perhaps a better takeaway is that there are others out there: people who became dependent on peers to carry them through some classes and regret how it hurt them, people who had different interpretations of unacceptably vague policies in the past and now realize they “cheated,” people who have never even broken the Honor Code but see how it is violated left and right without notice or repercussion to the point where no path is really fair to anyone anyway.

The steps above may not be the best response to this issue. But if they can start a discussion that will lead to less confusion, regret and damage to people’s educations — and more equity among students who are left to enforce their own boundaries amid a lack of University guidance — then we’ll at least be starting to emerge from the ridiculousness of the current status quo.

The author is in the class of 2021 and is being kept anonymous due to the subject matter.

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