Academic Integrity in Honor Code and Non-Honor Code Environments: A Qualitative Investigation

By McCabe, Donald L.; Trevino, Linda Klebe et al. | Journal of Higher Education, March-April 1999 | Go to article overview

Academic Integrity in Honor Code and Non-Honor Code Environments: A Qualitative Investigation


McCabe, Donald L., Trevino, Linda Klebe, Butterfield, Kenneth D., Journal of Higher Education


Academic dishonesty on college campuses has been the subject of much research in recent years. Studies have generally used survey techniques to test theories about the individual and contextual characteristics that are thought to influence cheating in college. With regard to individual characteristics, results have typically found that underclassmen cheat more than upperclassmen (Bowers, 1964), that male students cheat more than female students (Bowers, 1964; McCabe & Trevino, 1997), and that students with lower grade point averages cheat more than higher achieving students (Bowers, 1964; McCabe & Trevino, 1997). With regard to contextual characteristics, studies have found that cheating is higher among fraternity and sorority members (Stannard & Bowers, 1970), among students involved in intercollegiate athletics (Bowers, 1964), among students who perceive that their peers cheat and are not penalized (Bowers, 1964; McCabe & Trevino, 1993, 1997), and is lower at institutions that have strong academic honor codes (Bowers, 1964; Brooks, Cunningham, Hinson, Brown, & Weaver, 1981; Campbell, 1935; Canning, 1956; McCabe & Trevino, 1993).

It is helpful to understand the individual and contextual characteristics that influence cheating, because interventions aimed at controlling cheating can be aimed at groups who cheat more (such as underclassmen) or contexts where cheating is supported (such as fraternities or sororities). However, honor codes may represent the most important contextual factor, because they offer faculty and administrators a means to influence behavior across the entire student body. Although survey research findings have shown that honor codes have a positive impact on academic integrity, we know little about students' thoughts and feelings about these codes and how and why they think honor codes influence their behavior. We also know little about how honor code students and non-honor code students might differ along these lines.

McCabe and Trevino (1993) suggested that honor codes may lead to lower levels of academic dishonesty because they clarify expectations and definitions of cheating behavior. Therefore it may be more difficult to rationalize and justify cheating because there are fewer grey areas. Second, they proposed that moral norms are more likely to be activated and influence behavior under honor codes, because in honor code environments students are given responsibility for detecting violators, determining guilt, and assigning penalties. Moral norms are also more likely to be activated when individuals take responsibility for outcomes (Schwartz, 1968). Finally, they argued that students may abide by honor codes because they are motivated to preserve valued privileges, such as unproctored exams. Although their survey data confirmed the positive relationship between honor codes and academic integrity, the data could not confirm the reasons for the relationship.

In this study, which was part of a larger study of academic cheating in honor code and non-code institutions, conducted in the 1995-1996 academic year, we used qualitative techniques to delve more deeply into students' thoughts about academic integrity. At the end of the survey students were asked to comment openly about the effectiveness of the academic integrity policies on their campuses and the prevalence of cheating, both their own and that of their peers. Specifically, the last question on the survey invited students to offer "any comments you care to make or if there is anything else you would like to tell us about the topic of cheating in college." The term honor code was not used here or elsewhere in the survey. The research instrument focused on cheating, and the term "academic integrity policies" was used to refer to relevant policies on each campus. Therefore, respondents were unaware of our interest in the impact of codes on their thinking. The open-ended comments provided by students were content analyzed to learn more about their thoughts and feelings with regard to academic integrity on their campuses. …

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