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The Honor System.

It was the purpose of this study(1) to discover the nature of and variations in attitudes toward academic honesty among students and faculty members of a certain institution where an honor system had been recognized for about twenty-five years. Academic honesty is here used to refer to honesty and integrity in respect to preparing assignments, writing examinations, and other exercises directly related to class or learning activities.

A blank called a Personal Opinion Blank was constructed, using as a basis an early form of the Character Education Inquiry. It contained thirty-six descriptions of concrete situations involving academic honesty. The respondent was asked to indicate for each item whether he thought the described action was justified, unjustified, or doubtful. Evidence showed that the blank was sufficiently reliable and valid to justify conclusions concerning groups.

The limits of space do not permit reproducing the entire blank, but the two descriptions which follow illustrate the concreteness of the situations presented in the test.

2. I had not been feeling well for a week. My theme was due on Friday. On Thursday night I had such a headache I couldn't think. But in order to come through with my work, I got my roommate to write it for me.

36. I used a crib on the examination because I felt that if I memorized the crib and then forgot it all after the examination it would be no worse than copying from the crib. I see no difference between copying from a crib and then destroying it, and copying from mental pictures and then letting them fade away.

In Table I a brief statement summarizes each of the thirty-six situations as described. The figures are percentages of 494 representative students [TABULAR DATA FOR TABLE I OMITTED] and 46 faculty members, respectively, who were unable to justify the actions described. It can be seen that the faculty members did not justify these actions so often as the students did. The only exception to this general tendency was in the item, "Used suggestion accidentally seen on neighbor's paper," toward which the faculty members were more lenient than the students. The faculty members agreed completely on only one item, "Ill pupil had roommate write theme for him"; all agreed that the action was unjustifiable. The wide variations within each group and the differences between the two groups raise interesting questions concerning the efficacy of an honor system based on any one set of standards. Table II shows the average percentage of responses given by various groups.

There is a real difference shown between the attitudes of men and of women students toward actions involving honesty. Men seem to be able to justify more of these actions than women. A detailed study of responses by classes shows that there is no reliable difference between Freshmen and Sophomores or between Juniors and Seniors, but the differences between the two lower classes and the two upper classes are significant. They show, moreover, that the two upper classes are less strict in their attitudes toward academic honesty than the two lower classes. The question might well be raised, "Is the college environment such that it tends to stimulate more lenient attitudes in respect to academic honesty?"

Some idea of growth in respect to attitudes toward academic honesty may be obtained by comparing the responses of groups of public-school pupils with those of college students on 20 of the 36 items previously submitted to pupils in public schools. In Table III it will be noticed that there is a gradual increase in the percentage of responses marked "unjustified" up to the sophomore year in college. From that point, the curve starts downward again. It would be interesting to know whether this is typical of conditions in most colleges. So far as is known, there is no factor in the selection of students for this particular investigation which would account for this phenomenon.

Are there forces at work in college and university which cause the idealism of beginning students to come into contact with academic realities in such a way as to build up a system of rationalizations which will justify actions not justified by a high moral standard? It will be remembered that Hartshorne and May found that in organizations where dishonesty resulted in desired rewards the older members were more dishonest than the younger members.(2)

How do the attitudes of students toward honesty on examinations compare with their attitudes toward honesty in preparing assignments? How do students' attitudes toward these situations compare with the attitudes of the faculty members. To find answers to these questions a comparison was made between the responses of the students and faculty members to the two types of situations. Fourteen of the 36 items relate to conduct during examinations, while 13 relate to conduct in preparing assignments. The remaining items cannot definitely be classified under either of these headings. The average percentage of responses marked "unjustified" by the students was 62 on the assignment situations and 77 on the examination situations. For the faculty members these percentages were 83 and 87, respectively. In other words, the students are considerably more liberal in their attitudes toward dishonesty in preparing assignments than in examinations. The difference here is 15 percent. The faculty members do not justify these actions in respect to either type of situation as much as the students, and there is a difference of only 4 per cent between their attitudes on assignment and examination situations.

Average Percentage of Responses of Each Type Given by Various Groups

                      Justified       Doubtful       Unjustified
(1)                      (2)             (3)             (4)
Men                       22              11              67
Women                     20              10              70
All students              21              10              69
Faculty members            5              10              85

Comparison of Attitudes of Various Grade Groups on the Same Twenty

                                          Percentage of Responses
Groups               Number of Cases        Marked "Unjustified"
(1)                        (2)                      (3)

Grade IX                   200                       52
Grade XI                    70                       60
Grade XII                   80                       71
Freshmen                   104                       79
Sophomores                 148                       81
Juniors                    125                       78
Seniors                    117                       77
Faculty members             46                       93

In addition to the thirty-six items involving academic honesty the Personal Opinion Blank contained one item worded so as to indicate attitudes toward reporting observed dishonesty. The item read as follows:

37. Looking up from my examination as I was trying to think through the problem suggested, I saw John looking on a little card of notes in his hand. Knowing that the use of a crib was taking an unfair advantage of the other members of the class taking the examination, I later told the teacher what I had seen.

The responses to this item were grouped by classes and by sex as shown in Table IV. The 494 students - 228 men and 266 women - were numbered in class groups in Column 2 of Table III. The number of faculty members was 46. The figures in Table IV show clearly that it is contrary to the attitudes of the majority of these students to report such a clear case of dishonesty as that described in Item 37. Only 32 per cent of all students indicated that they believed reporting the case was justified. The men were more opposed to reporting than the women. A smaller proportion of Seniors than of any other class definitely committed themselves to the belief that reporting this case was justified. Sixty-seven per cent of the faculty justified reporting, while 22 per cent thought this action was not justified. What is the relationship between attitudes toward academic honesty and attitudes toward reporting observed dishonesty? In another connection an "honesty score" was computed for each blank, using an arbitrary key which gave one point for each of the 36 items marked "unjustified." A comparison of these "honesty scores" with the students' expressed attitudes toward reporting observed dishonesty shows that those students who have the highest sense of honesty are most favorable to reporting observed dishonesty. This is an average tendency, however, and there are many exceptions. The conclusion seems justified that the majority of the students probably could not be depended upon to report academic dishonesty. When opinions vary as widely as the ones expressed by these persons and when rationalizations to justify most any action are so easy to construct, is it any wonder that honor systems seem ineffective and that the problem of academic honesty is always at hand?

The Attitudes of Various Groups Toward Reporting Dishonesty (Item
No. 37)

                         Percentage of Responses of Each Type
Class Group           Justified       Doubtful       Unjustified
(1)                       (2)            (3)             (4)

Freshmen                   30             24              46
Sophomores                 37             13              50
Juniors                    42             22              36
Seniors                    29             23              48
Men                        29             20              51
Women                      36             20              44
All students               32             20              48
Faculty members            67             11              22


1 This is a portion of a committee report on the honor system at Ohio Wesleyan University. The committee was composed of Professors Diem, Lewis, Manchester, Murray with the writer as chairman.

2 Reference to this and many other studies related to honesty and honor systems may be found in Mathews, C. O. Bibliography on the Honor System and Academic Honesty in American Schools and Colleges. (U.S. Office of Education, Pamphlet No. 16, 1930).
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Author:Mathews, C.O.
Publication:Journal of Higher Education
Article Type:Reprint
Date:Sep 1, 1999
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