Students, faculty reflect on century-old Engineering Honor Code

Monday, December 9, 2019 - 4:41pm

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Design by Jack Silberman

From their first day as students at the University of Michigan’s College of Engineering, students are introduced to the Engineering Honor Code, a set of standards in place to discourage academic dishonesty.

The Engineering Honor Code has been in place at the University for more than 100 years. By following the principles of the Honor Code, the document says, engineers at the University will become successful.

“The standards for personal integrity demanded by the Honor Code are a reflection of the standards of conduct expected of engineers,” the Honor Code reads. “These standards allow fairness among students to ensure that no unfair advantage is gained and an equal learning opportunity is given to all students.”

George Sprague, assistant director of retention and academic support services in the College of Engineering, said the Engineering Honor Code defines academic dishonesty under four categories: seeking an unfair advantage, copying and plagiarism, inappropriate use of resources and inappropriate collaboration.

One unique aspect of the Honor Code allows examinations in the College of Engineering to be unproctored. Sprague said students have told the College of Engineering that this practice makes them feel trusted by the University.

“It makes (students) feel that they have more real world experience, whereas they don’t feel as though somebody is hovering over a button in terms of how that has been juxtaposed to other units,” Sprague said. “They say it hasn’t been that that’s a negative experience elsewhere as much as they enjoyed the positive aspects that they have here.”

Engineering sophomore Madeline Horvitz said she has noticed the difference in the way exams are proctored in LSA and Engineering. With these differences, she said the Honor Code grants students a level of trust that she appreciates.

“All of my math and physics exams were proctored, and for engineering, the professors are like, ‘All right, I’ll be sitting outside of class if you guys have any questions, but until then just go ahead,’” Horvitz said.

LSA sophomore Victor Li is double majoring in Cognitive Science and Computer Science through LSA. Though he is not in the College of Engineering, Li has taken classes at the College to fulfill his Computer Science requirements.

Horvitz and Li both said they have not seen anybody cheat even with no supervision during exams because most people focus on completing their own exam.

“If someone wants to cheat, it’s probably easier for them to cheat because no one’s looking at them to see if their eyes are on other people’s exams,” Li said. “I haven’t really noticed it because I’m always focused on my things.”

Cases of Engineering Honor Code violation are referred to the Engineering Honor Council, a group of 20 student volunteers who oversee Honor Code management and investigate all cases of violations. 

“(The Engineering Honor Council) really do serve as that peer-to-peer voice of accountability,” Sprague said. “They also serve as a great voice of advocacy, so when (students) see something that may raise concerns, they have a great student body representative force that can go and be advocates for those students going through a process.”

According to Sprague, 891 violations were investigated under the Engineering Honor Code during the 2018-2019 academic year. The number of violations have increased over time because College of Engineering began implementing the Measure of Software Similarity cheat detection system about five years ago, Sprague said.

“Some students were caught off guard at the level of detail that the cheat detection system was able to capture,” Sprague said. “Any piece of work that (students) turned into the College of Engineering has real a real potential of being run through MOSS, this cheat detection system. It’s going to be compared against not only the work of everyone in their class, but all work that’s been uploaded in that system for the past five years, as well as resources that have been uploaded up from online resources.”

Now that more students are being made aware of how precise the cheat detection system can be, Sprague said they have seen the number of violations drop dramatically. During the Fall 2019 semester, Sprague estimated his team has received under 100 violations.

Horvitz said she thinks the Honor Code is a great component to the College of Engineering and shows a level of trust for students. However, she thinks improvements should be made to the system for violation investigations to ensure the process is more up-to-date and runs smoothly.

At the beginning of the semester, Horvitz said she sent a message in a group chat for environmental engineers asking if anyone had completed a homework problem. Horvitz said a person in the group chat sent back a photo of his work, and the conversation was reported by another individual in the group chat.

Horvitz said she received an email from the College of Engineering before Fall Break about her case, saying it may take four to eight months to resolve. Though the incident occurred before Fall Break in 2019, Horvitz said her case has not been investigated yet due to the backlog of cases, even though she was told by an advisor that her case would be found innocent.

“I have to wait an entire semester to be seen for something I’m already deemed innocent for, although I don’t have that official innocence,” Horvitz said. “I should be deemed innocent, our work looks nothing alike and I didn’t solicit the work. The advisor himself said, ‘You look to be innocent, your case should probably be wrapped up once you actually get investigated quite quickly.’ The only problem is I have to hold this over my shoulder for four to eight months.”

Horvitz said she has had other friends in the College of Engineering who have been indicted by the Honor Code unfairly. She suggested the College of Engineering consider making updates to its system to make the process move more quickly, such as establishing a vetting process for cases and creating a separate team to investigate Computer Science classes since they generate the most violations.

“Given the fact that the policies are so many decades old and are not equipped to handle any of the current circumstances and I think their flexibility for other people to innocently get harmed means they need an update,” Horvitz said. “Their intent is nice, but their outcome isn’t.”

Sprague said the majority of honor code violations come from coding assignments. He said the College of Engineering is currently working on ways to improve the process of Honor Code violation investigations.

To resolve cases in a more timely fashion, Sprague said his team began offering the option for an expedited investigation process in March 2019. Compared to the traditional process, the expedited process takes approximately three weeks to resolve.

“Essentially, students have the opportunity to come in and then admit responsibility for an alleged violation,” Sprague said. “They can also identify folks that are potentially not responsible, so their cases can be dismissed, and we try to get those wrapped up and as quickly as possible.”

In addition to the expedited process, Sprague said his team employed an intern during the summer who investigated cases to help the process move at a faster pace and to catch up with backlogged cases.

“We're dangerously close to being fully caught up,” Sprague said. “We have started the final assignments of investigations from the Winter 2019 semester, and we are actively completing expedited processes for cases that have been submitted as recently as a week ago from this Fall 19.”

As an LSA student, Li said the only difference he has seen between the two schools is how they handle cases of academic dishonesty — while Engineering students are referred first to the Engineering Honor Council, LSA students are directly referred to a dean.

“It doesn’t affect me any differently than LSA, where there is no honor code and you get referred to a dean (for cheating),” Li said. “I feel like there’s not much of a difference.”