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What is an honor code and why is it important to academic integrity?


Karen L. Smith
Karen L. Smith
Senior Teaching and Learning Specialist






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“I have neither given nor received assistance while completing this assignment. I pledge that it is my own work in its entirety.”

An honor code, like the one above, is a promise that all work is the student’s own, a concrete commitment to academic integrity. Students resort to academic dishonesty for various reasons, and the solution is both complex and simple: we need to make academic integrity a core value in our classrooms and/or institutions, beginning with a promise.

I’ve sometimes added an honor statement at the top of student assignments or exams as a visible reminder of the honor code. But what exactly does it mean, and how is this statement reflective of the adopted institutional values? A true honor code is more than a signature dashed off at the top of an assignment or a poster hanging in the classroom. Intended as an ever present reminder of academic integrity to students, does this statement, often present and often unexplored, really make an impact on students?

Too often during my tenure as a teacher and literacy coach, I was approached with the question, What do I do when I catch someone cheating on an assignment? After the fact is essentially too late because then the solutions tend to be punitive, and the lesson learned isn’t what it could and should be.

It’s best to be proactive about establishing academic integrity within our classrooms. Without making an honor code a living, breathing part of the classroom--ideally within the whole institution--we educators and students find ourselves in a vicious cycle of policing and punishing after the fact. The honor code needs to exist in a formative space that nurtures awareness of academic integrity throughout the learning journey.

An honor code is a fundamental step to establishing a culture of academic integrity. Ideally this occurs on the institutional level, but it is a must for our individual classrooms. The complex part is making that honor code a continued collaborative effort between the students, us as educators, and the assignments themselves. The honor code allows all stakeholders to know, understand, and participate in commonly held standards of academic integrity.

How does this happen? Do your due diligence. Early and often. Purposefully. Collaboratively. Reflectively. It is only through the steady infusion of these collaborative conversations that students and educators develop a strong understanding of academic integrity that can be put into practice.

What are steps towards establishing a formative space that integrate honor statements to the learning journey within our classrooms?

4 keys to a successful integration:
  • Establish a culture of integrity. Establishing a common understanding of academic integrity by drafting an honor code, and making it an integral part of the academic community, is a strong first step. Stakeholders such as students, parents, fellow educators, and administration can establish an honor code that is foundational to an educational community. It must then be implemented within individual classrooms with consistent, intentional steps such as explicit instruction and building an awareness of how and why academic integrity is important. This shared understanding between and among all levels of stakeholders helps us build a culture of academic integrity throughout the institution and/or within the classroom.

    What happens if your institution or other educators don’t institute an honor code? Can we still establish one in our own classrooms? Absolutely yes! When we begin with concrete steps such as creating a shared definition of academic integrity and what it looks like within our classroom, we establish clear understandings of how we can create a culture of academic integrity within our classrooms. The conversations and practices that we establish collaboratively with students are a key factor in the success of the honor code moving forward. While it is our responsibility to introduce these conversations, without student input the honor code will likely be reduced to that dusty old statement that only lives in the header of our assignment!

  • Center students. Centering students is critical to centering academic integrity in classroom practice. Best practice dictates not delivering the honor code in a neat little package with all the “right” answers already filled in for students, but encouraging students to contribute their knowledge. When we seek input from students about what academic integrity is and what it does--and does not--look like, students are more likely to understand the intent and come to a common understanding of what practicing it in the classroom looks like. Using collaborative activities to establish what the classroom values are, what it looks like (and does not look like) in the classroom, and how violations will be handled will lead to better student engagement and practice. We build a commitment to academic integrity collaboratively by implementing carefully planned discussions and practices and using resources that will support our class’s commitment to maintaining that honor code.

  • Model academic integrity. Modeling academic integrity must be an intrinsic part of classroom practice in ways both visible and subtle. Although many think academic integrity lives in the English classroom, academic dishonesty can manifest itself in every discipline, including examples such as code plagiarism, non-citation of sources, improper attribution, to name only a few ways that academic dishonesty typically appears in student work. Teachers should credit others in our classrooms and work to model the norm we expect in student work. More than simply an act of attribution, we can offer up fair and inclusive assessments that challenge students to demonstrate their knowledge in ways that are fair and invite students’ best efforts. By demonstrating explicitly how academic integrity lives in daily work and assignments, we model how academic integrity is not just one more requirement to be addressed for the “big” project, but simply some deliberate steps as a regular part of our classrooms.

  • Commit to working together. Committing to working together within this intentional and formative space is what will determine the role of academic integrity within the classroom or institution. Commitment may look different from classroom to classroom, and that’s perfectly all right. Commitment may take the form of a signed contract, or it may simply be the continuation of discussions regarding what academic integrity does and does not look like. Regardless, renewing that commitment and keeping it in the forefront of students’ minds and work is the goal. And If it’s not working as originally drafted? Then we need to model how to revisit, reflect, and revise so that the honor code can reflect the growth and commitment to academic integrity that we share with our students.

Remember, do your due diligence. Early and often. Purposefully. Collaboratively. Reflectively.

Join us for our upcoming webinar on October 20, 2021, the International Day of Action Against Contract Cheating (IDoA) to learn more about implementing and maintaining honor codes and Turnitin’s newest tools and resources. Turnitin actively encourages positive conversations on academic integrity and is proud to support the International Day of Action. For further information on other activities taking place, visit the IDoA website and share the following hashtags on social media #IntegrityMatters #ExcelWithIntegrity #MyOwnWork