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Why Is It Important to Update Honor Codes for Online Learning Environments?

Christine Lee
Christine Lee
Content Manager






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Honor codes reduce instances of academic misconduct. According to Donald McCabe, “at schools with honor codes (code schools), the number of students who admitted engaging in any of those kinds of cheating was 24%. At schools without honor codes (non-code schools) it was 47%.” And honor codes are made more effective when developed with the understanding that academic integrity is a learned experience.

Research has shown that honor codes must be enacted in a supportive manner. Linda Klebe Trevino and Donald McCabe, whose pioneering work has driven academic integrity awareness, state, “Students consistently indicate that when they feel part of a campus community, when they believe faculty are committed to their courses, and when they are aware of the policies of their institution concerning academic integrity, they are less likely to cheat.” They conclude, “Successful honor codes help create such an environment among students” (Trevino and McCabe, 1996, p. 33).

So, how does this translate to online learning environments? What are some guiding principles to update honor codes and policies in online learning environments?

Like all honor codes, honor codes in online learning environments are most effective when balanced with policies, actions, and support initiatives.

When honor codes are fortified with support services and education, the ideal result is academic integrity ingrained in a school’s culture. A May 2020 Inquirer article profiled several universities and colleges with strong academic integrity cultures and remote support services prior to crisis remote learning. Because students were educated about the concepts behind academic integrity and were bolstered by support and a strong community, these campuses were able to navigate a crisis and avoid instances of misconduct. The article states, “although there’s no replacement for the in-person classroom experience, universities will need to improve their connection to students if online learning continues.”

The unique circumstances of online learning environments--namely, the lack of in-person interaction--can challenge academic integrity. Remote learning makes students who feel unseen and lack a sense of belonging even more vulnerable to academic misconduct. “The more distant students are, the more disconnected they feel, and the more likely it is that they’ll rationalize cheating,” states Frank M. LoSchiavo. “Honor codes,” LoSchiavo said, “are more effective when there are [strong] social connections.”

Therefore, student-teacher relationships and feedback loops are all the more important in online learning, remote learning, distance learning, and hybrid learning situations--because reduced in-person interaction makes feedback the central conduit for communication and insights into student learning. When updating your policies, highlight the importance of student-teacher engagement via feedback loops and one-on-one virtual office hours.

Likewise, support services bolster student learning; consider support resources in online learning honor policies. Bridging inequities and thus building an inclusive classroom culture is vital in online learning environments. Learning styles differ--and students may not have opportunities to actively participate and develop critical thinking if a variety of communication outlets and assessment formats aren’t offered. Consider different communication formats like a classroom chat on Slack or a classroom blog, as well as training from your campus for students and faculty to familiarize themselves with learning tools like Turnitin Originality to support original work. Offer accommodations to students who request them. In the realm of remote learning, learning communities may also be helpful in creating lasting cohorts.

Many third parties like essay mills and test banks target vulnerable students online, exactly where learning is taking place in recent days--often capitalizing on FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt); they play semantic games on students unfamiliar with academic integrity by offering “plagiarism-free essays,” even when contract cheating is still very much a form of misconduct. Education about academic integrity and its concepts and principles are, therefore, more important than ever. Honor codes must bolster the work of instructors and include ways in which instructors can action honor codes in instruction. Suggest sample honor statements for classroom use for students to sign (i.e., “I will be academically honest in all of my academic work and will not tolerate academic dishonesty in others”). Or suggest a statement for students to sign for each exam (i.e., “By signing this examination agreement, I acknowledge my commitment to the Academic Honor Code”).

New forms of plagiarism and academic misconduct are emerging in online learning environments, therefore we need to keep in mind that honor codes and policies exist for a reason. And that they work best alongside explicit instruction around academic integrity and support services with the end goal to support student learning.

We hope you never need to take action on honor code violations. We hope students embrace original work in online learning environments while feeling supported and seen. And we hope that these principles help you to build a culture of academic integrity on your campus.