Understanding the subtleties of the Honor Code

By Judd Liebman

Waiting outside her first period class, a girl frantically skims her English book. Her friend, in the same English class, has the same problem: they sense an English quiz coming, and neither of them has read. The girl tries to condense the assignment into a 10-minute period before she has to go to class at 8 a.m.. Her friend whips out his phone and goes on Sparknotes.com.

“That’s not allowed,” she said.

“What’s not allowed? Sparknotes? That’s totally fine,” he responded.

According to English Department Chair Larry Weber, using Sparknotes is, in fact, an Honor Code infraction.

“We ask students not to consult Sparknotes or Cliffs[notes] so they can have their own encounters with the writers,” Weber said. “Not just to prevent intentional plagiarism but also unintentional plagiarism because it can be hard to keep track of where your ideas come from.”

The Honor Code was adopted in 1998 and has been integrated into the community since. There are posters in many hallways stating the Honor Code, and many teachers start class on the first day of school going over class policy. Despite these efforts, more than half  of students polled say it is not clear what an Honor Code infraction is.

Weber said English teachers always tell their students that using some online resources is not allowed for two reasons. The first, he said, is that the department does not want students to take shortcuts in doing their work. The second is that some websites provide analysis. Not all websites are discouraged because using critical material found online can actually strengthen students’ understanding of a novel and of an author’s life experiences, he said. The only condition is that students should let the teacher know they are consulting outside works.

The history department has a similar policy regarding online sources. History Department Chair Katherine Holmes-Chuba said most sources are acceptable but they need to be cited. Wikipedia is an exception, she said. Students can “start on Wikipedia, but we do not accept that as an acceptable source,” she said.

Librarians visit every 10th grade history class to help sophomores understand how to research responsibly, Holmes-Chuba said.

On the other hand, Math Department Chair Paula Evans said most homework solutions are posted on the internet. Teachers provide this resource so students can check their answers and learn from their mistakes, Evans said, and students who copy their homework only hurt their grades.

“Typically in the math department, the homework grade is a kind of a ‘gimme grade,’” Evans said. “If we need to assess skills, we use quizzes.”

The foreign language department’s policy on internet help is fairly nuanced, Department Chair Paul Chenier said. For his Latin classes, he sends his students links to bolster their understanding of assigned texts. There is no possibility of plagiarism in his classes because the essays he assigns cannot be found online, he said.

For other language classes some assignments can be found online, so teachers warn students against using too much information gathered from the internet. Online translator programs are not allowed in the department, but Chenier said they aren’t that reliable, another deterrent from using them.

Another source of help is tutors. Chenier said tutors have stayed connected to the language department, so employing a tutor does not raise problems.

“We know who they are,” he said. “They are not people really far from the program, so that helps.”

Weber, who sends a tutor policy to students’ homes in the fall, writes that “the increasing use of tutors has made it more difficult to discern authentic student work.”

Tutors are not allowed to change the content or style of an essay but can proofread for mechanical errors and awkward sentences, but students must rewrite the sentence structure themselves. Tutors can help clarify a student’s ideas but cannot suggest ways to improve the essay’s structure.

The history department prohibits students from using tutors on history papers in any way, Holmes-Chuba said.

“The use of a tutor is not accepted,” she said. “We even caution them with parental help. This is supposed to be your paper.”

“We tell our students that [getting help on] grammar and sentence structure is okay, but once you go past that, you’re entering murky waters,” she said.

Physics teacher Jesse Reiner said he does not have any problem with a student learning from a tutor, but “non-tutored students are outcompeting students who have tutors,” he said.

“Tutors enable students to stay in AP Physics B who couldn’t otherwise survive it,” Reiner said.

What Reiner does caution his students about is unauthorized student aid on labs.

“You shouldn’t be sitting side by side writing,” he said. “Discussion [about labs with friends] should take place before you start writing. Sending someone an electronic file is definitely a bad decision.”

Reiner said appropriate collaboration involves teaching and helping a lab partner understand the material. Unauthorized aid includes exchanging or pooling answers.

“The only way to distinguish this is if there is the same careless error,” he said. “I try to draw the only line I can. Punching in numbers is part of the job.”

“I consider our data to be as original as your ideas,” reads a document given by physics teacher John C. Feulner. “Thus, plagiarism includes, but is not limited to, copying data, massaging data, copying conclusions, and copying lab reports.”

Weber also said collaboration on English essays is tricky. Weber allows conversation about in-class topics. Students are allowed to hash out possibilities regarding passages, but cannot come up with definite answers together.

Another problem teachers face is students in the same class exchanging information about an exam with peers who have not yet taken the test.

The Faculty Handbook recommends that teachers change “make-up test[s] or one given to several sections at a diferent time periods in the same day… in a significant manner for each administration.”  The handbook also states that “tests given one year should be significantly altered if they are to be administered the following year.”

Evans said the math department follows the guidelines recommended by the Faculty Handbook by having subject teams mix up questions.

“We know that if we just change numbers on a test that doesn’t make a difference at all,” she said.

 “I would hope for consistency’s sake to give the same make-up test,” Feulner said. “Knowing even though I have told my students not to talk about the test out of class, in reality, I know it occurs.”

Feulner and Reiner sometimes give their students different versions of a test, but they said knowing about a question does not always help a student.

“There are cases when hearing about a problem would not matter, and there are cases where it does matter,” Feulner said.

Holmes-Chuba says teachers in the history department produce different exams if a student needs to make-up a test. There are either different multiple choice questions or alternate essay questions.

“We have an Honor Code, but it is unrealistic to think that somebody may not blurt something out even inadvertently,” Holmes-Chuba said.

Chenier’s department also makes new exams for make-up tests because “kids have normal conversations, it’s bound to happen,” Chenier said about make-up tests.

“We have an obligation to try to make sure the students are put in a reasonable position,” he said.