Editorial Board | What is an education without honesty?

Opinion by Editorial Board
March 14, 2024, 12:00 a.m.

Cheating at Stanford has become rampant in recent years. After seemingly every CS 106A exam and major assignment, students flood Fizz with posts asking how effective the CS department’s plagiarism detector is and whether they will get caught for receiving inappropriate help. Students circulate completed problem sets to copy and submit as their own work without giving credit.

It’s time for us to confront the obvious: The long-standing Honor Code, Stanford’s institutional mechanism to combat academic dishonesty, has failed. 

The Editorial Board believes that the Faculty Senate’s reinstatement of in-person proctoring is a positive step. However, proctoring alone does not address the bulk of the problem. 

The Vice Provost of Student Affairs established the Committee of 12 or “C-12” in 2022 to address the proliferation of academic dishonesty. C-12-led focus groups with students uncovered informal confessions about academic dishonesty on assignments beyond exams. Students told the committee that many violations, like plagiarism and unpermitted aid, such as unapproved cheat sheets or using the Internet — persist at Stanford.

Faculty hold the unique power to restructure courses to alleviate cheating. Upholding academic integrity is a shared responsibility between students and faculty members. Our recommendations allow faculty members to respond to cheating enabled by new technologies. 

To understand why this burden falls on faculty, we must consider how the Honor Code and student behavior have evolved. 

How did we get here? 

The Honor Code was established in 1921 and maintained its stance on proctoring until 2023. Prior to 2023, it compelled faculty to create “confidence in the honor of its students by refraining from proctoring examinations.” In turn, students assumed the responsibility to monitor and report violations by their peers. 

Students, however, have failed their side of the bargain. Out of the 720 total Honor Code violations reported between 2018-2021, only two came from students. In the past three years Honor Code violations have increased: 136 in 2018-19, 191 in 2019-20, and 393 in 2020-21. 

Largely in response to this trend, the C-12 proposed changes to the Honor Code last May to allow in-person proctoring, reversing a longstanding norm. These changes triggered a torrent of student dismay and anger. 

It is clear to us, a year after the Faculty Senate’s decision, that the proctoring policy would simply put a bandage over one wound, while more nebulous, common forms of cheating fester.

Why has cheating become such a widespread issue at Stanford? 

Certainly, there are substantial incentives to cheat; one factor is post-graduation opportunities. Whether it be graduate school or an interview at McKinsey, each seems to sport a daunting GPA cutoff, and students may feel tempted to use any means to keep those doors open — a pressure acknowledged by the C-12. 

When cheating becomes a widespread campus norm, the stigma attached to academic dishonesty erodes. Cheating becomes viewed as acceptable — or even necessary — to achieve success amid students who also cheat to stay afloat. Students may assume when exam scores are curved up, they are disadvantaged when they don’t cheat.

Furthermore, grade inflation contributes to an environment where an A is the expectation, and less is failure. 

An A should mark exceptional achievement in a course. In an academic climate where Bs are commonplace, perhaps a poor grade on one test would feel less like an outcome so bad that you should risk academic integrity to prevent it. 

The unrelenting pace in the quarter system also contributes: Seemingly never-ending midterms span weeks three to nine and the pressure to cram for several final exams and papers induce the temptation to cheat.

Stanford’s academic environment has transformed into a pressure cooker, exacerbated by technological change the University has precipitated. In our view, this enabling climate, rather than some generational increase in dishonesty, is responsible for much of Stanford’s current cheating problem. Students under pressure will cheat if given the chance, and that chance has exponentiated with the internet, ChatGPT, and workarounds to plagiarism detectors. Technologies outpace detection in many contexts, with some efforts even leading to false accusations.

How can we move forward?

The new environment around academic dishonesty needs intervention beyond codified rules, it necessitates a reimagined approach to exams, assignments, and their evaluation. In addition to proctoring exams, we recommend that faculty implement the following changes:

1) Phase out take-home examinations, especially ones graded solely on correctness, in favor of in-person exams and papers.

2) Allow for cited collaboration on homework — it happens anyway. 

3) Eliminate “reflection” assignments to assess attendance or completion of readings, as they’re easily completed by ChatGPT. If instructors believe reflection is crucial, it is most effective to evaluate through discussion sections, argumentative assignments requiring original thought or in-class assessments.

4) Emphasize why academic honesty is important, not only to avoid disciplinary action, but to realize academic learning goals. A speech from instructors early in the quarter, particularly in introductory courses, would reaffirm normative goals underlying policies designed to uphold academic honesty.

Academic dishonesty is a structural problem at Stanford, driven by new technologies and student culture. Changes that do not address this reality will fail to solve the problem.

If the honor code has broken down, it is because the trust between faculty and students has broken down. While we believe students are wrong to oppose the proctoring changes, we understand that the withdrawal of trust hurts. But faculty are justified in their desire to respond.

Academic dishonesty is immensely harmful — widespread cheating degrades the University’s purpose, community and institution. A widespread culture of cheating not only ruins the curve for honest students, but undermines a Stanford degree’s academic capital. 

We urge the faculty to seriously reimagine the responsibility to cultivate an environment supportive of academic integrity. There are no malicious professors in this regard — no one wants their students to cheat. 

We urge students to support faculty to create an academically honest classroom. Prioritizing shiny results over effort curtails students’ ability to gain a genuine education. The value of Stanford classes is the cumulative knowledge we obtain from them, not the collection of letter grades.

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