From the community | Letter to the Editor: Honor Code training ignores the problem

Feb. 13, 2022, 7:22 p.m.

— Dr. Ruth Starkman is a lecturer in Stanford’s Program in Writing and Rhetoric.

I was dismayed to read in The Daily on Friday that the Board on Judicial Affairs will institute “yearly training on the Honor Code for every student upon entrance to Stanford and annually thereafter,” require students “to sign or otherwise affirm” their “commitment to abide by the Honor Code for every exam and major assignment” and other intensive interventions.

Surely, the Board on Judicial Affairs well-meaningly intends fruitful discussions about students’ ethical obligation to do their own work. For newcomers unfamiliar with the rules, such training remains imperative. However, it is unclear how this new annual university enforcement will “give students ownership” or might ameliorate the problem of cheating. More likely, the proposal will exacerbate student anxiety while ignoring the root cause of cheating, i.e. poor assessment tools and exclusionary pedagogy.

Some students may cheat because they remain unaware of the rules or because they had “poor time management” or “ought to have studied more.”  Yet, the majority of students who cheat do so only in crisis. They arrive at Stanford with the best ethical intentions but too often find themselves floundering — usually in an introductory STEM course. Even with Stanford’s excellent tutoring services, some students continue to struggle with foundational concepts while the course moves to greater challenges. The pace remains notoriously fast. There’s too much material for 10 weeks. Worst of all, assignments far exceed beginning skill sets and high-stakes tests represent more than 50% of the grade. Students who perform poorly on heavily weighted tests may fail even if they complete all the other assignments for the course. This zero-sum game drives students to despair and cheating.

Perhaps the top third of students confidently complete such prohibitively difficult introductory assignments, but statistics show this cohort comes from more privileged learning environments, which include high schools with AP courses and additional educational coaching, such as private tutoring, before arrival. These more privileged students enjoy greater success in STEM core courses that act as gatekeepers to desirable professional fields like computer science and medicine. Some people are let in, and some people are kept out.

No amount of honor code training will prevent cheating if students feel they have no recourse and nothing left to lose. Stanford knows this; all of the academic deans who meet with students over honor code violations hear these stories of despair every year. These deans know the problems as well as the problem courses which disproportionately fail low-income students. Fixing those courses would do a lot more than compelling students to undergo honor code training. Stanford offers abundant resources for improving pedagogy, and they have long recommended changing unjust grading systems comprised of high-stakes assignments and exams. Our pedagogy experts offer cutting-edge advice on how to teach difficult subjects and keep standards high, while also being truly accessible.

Despite awareness of Stanford resources, change remains slow. Currently, Stanford’s worst gatekeeping courses communicate a confusing mix of bravado and false inclusion. Some departments assert that mastering difficult p-sets should be like “learning to ride a bike, where you fall a lot.” Others gesticulate expressively, claiming “everyone can do this!” But talking the talk about inclusion means little if one’s assignments serve primarily the most privileged students. It is time to walk the walk and abandon the gatekeeping approach to learning.

Stanford should undertake an investigation of the courses that produce the most cheating and ask what can change to make them more equitable so that all students can succeed. Instead of blaming students and policing them, we need to ask how instructors can do better.

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