[Day 408] My experience with Stanford’s Honor Code

The first time I learnt about from Stanford’s Honor Code, I thought it was something too good to be true. “You mean to tell me professors let students alone during exams? How’s it possible that the students don’t cheat?” The honor code is bilateral. If students sign the code to commit to not cheating, professors must show that they trust students by not watching students during exams. It gives students abundant opportunities to cheat, while keeping the probability of being caught low.

I come from Vietnam — a country where cheating in the exam is a challenge rather than a sin. Exams are battles between the exam administrators and exam takers, each side tries to out-maneuver the other. In school, I always felt a reassuring sense of camaraderie with my fellow students, knowing that we were on the same side. We help each other cheat. We pass around tips for preparing cheating materials. We ostracize whistleblowers who report cheaters. Not only students cheat, teachers cheat too. On occasions when our school needed to hit some goal, e.g. how many students need to pass the qualifying exam, teachers read out loud answers to students or let them use textbooks in supposedly closed-book exams. It’s socially acceptable to be cheaters. Students try to cheat teachers. Teachers try to cheat headmasters. Headmasters try to cheat government administrators.

When I arrived at Stanford, one of the first things I wanted to find out was if the Honor Code worked. To my surprise, it seems to be the case. Everyone at Stanford seems to be taking Honor Code seriously. Cheating often results in expulsion. When there is nobody to keep an eye on you during exams, cheating is no longer a challenge. When you cheat, you’re not out-maneuvering your enemy — you’re simply an opportunistic individual with questionable morality. I’ve never seen anybody cheat in an exam. My perspective on cheating changed too. During my three years at Stanford, it’s never occurred to me to try to cheat. The biggest risk associated with cheating is no longer getting caught, but the loss of honor. I just can’t do it. Through interactions with my friends, I know that they feel the same.

Honor Code doesn’t only boost students’ morale, but also makes the job of educators so much easier. I’ve worked as a teaching assistant and an instructor for several courses. Honor Code relieves me from the responsibility of catching cheaters and helps me focus on sharing knowledge. When proctoring exams, all I need to do is to sit outside the exam room doing my own work, while occasionally answering students’ questions if they have any. Honor Code doesn’t only apply in exams. Professors make it a point to remind you of the Honor Code with every assignment.

As much as I appreciate the Honor Code, I understand that we don’t live in a perfect world. There will always be people who cheat. The question is what we do with them to ensure that they don’t repeat their mistakes in the future. During one of my first courses at Stanford, a very popular professor solemnly declared in the first class that he understood even the best slipped sometimes. If you violated the Honor Code — e.g. it’s 5am and you’ve been working at the same problem for almost 20 hours and the deadline is 4 hours away and there is that one stupid bug, you’re tempted to look up the solution online — you could just tell him. You might still get zero point for your assignment, but the professor would not hold anything against you. There would be no investigation and there would be no risk of being expelled. I thought it was fair.

I’ve been a section leader (similar to a teaching assistant) for various introductory Computer Science classes) for 8 quarters, but didn’t have to deal with any Honor Code violation until my 7th quarter. One of the students in my section took a late day and submitted his assignment in the early AM right before the deadline. A few hours later, I received his email: “I am worried that I may have broken honor code with my submission.” He used some outside code as a reference for a small part of his code. He asked me what steps he needed to take to minimize the consequences. He cc-ed the lecturer in the email.

A few hours passed and there was no response from the lecturer. I understood the anxiety the student was going through — he was a good kid, a freshman, responsive and eager to learn — so I responded telling him that I appreciated his honesty, but it was beyond my authority so he’d need to wait to hear back from the lecturer. He then sent another email, this time only to me, asking if he could retract his assignment. That poor kid must have been going through hell. I forwarded his email to the lecturer.

I got a quick response from the lecturer. He told me to back off because I had no authority in this. I was surprised — I hadn’t tried to do anything beyond my authority other than forwarding him the information that I deemed necessary — but I thought it was probably just miscommunication. It was a stressful situation for everyone involved, so maybe the lecturer wasn’t in the best of mood.

A few days later, I ran into that student so I asked him how he was going. “Bad,” he weakly smiled. He apologized for putting me in this situation. I asked him if he’d talked to the lecturer. He nodded.

“He was very angry,” the student told me. “But I understand. It’s all my fault.”

“Are you sure he was angry and not just stressed?” I asked. The lecturer was one of my favorite teachers at Stanford. He inspired me to become a section leader and I frequented his office for advice. He was young, extremely accomplished, and passionate about teaching.

“Yeah,” the student said. From what I understood, the lecturer was yelling at him.

“That’s sad to hear,” I said. “I hope everything works out in the end.”

I was sad for the student, and disappointed in the lecturer. I understood that Honor Code violation wasn’t something you could brush off as a small accident — “kids do that when they are stressed.” However, like the professor mentioned above, I believed that even the best slipped sometimes. If they realize their mistake and learn from it, maybe we could spare them some sympathy. Being angry at the student wouldn’t make the situation any better. If anything, it’d make other students afraid of coming clean the next time.

I didn’t know what happened to the student after that. After the lecturer’s response, I was no longer sure what was within my authority and what wasn’t, so I stopped inquiring about it altogether. But this incident still bothers me, a lot. I thought about the best way to handle this situation. I debated the pros and cons of tolerance to cheating. I wonder if it’s because of my background — growing up in a country where cheating is socially acceptable — I felt too sympathetic to the student, or if the lecturer was being too harsh.

Like what I told the student, I hope it worked out for him in the end. It takes courage to admit one’s wrong-doing, and courage deserves redemption.

[Day 408] My experience with Stanford’s Honor Code

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