Nudging the exam takers

I’ve recently been reading Dan Ariely’s book, Predictably Irrational. One fascinating chapter is about the psychology of dishonesty. The experimenters gave two versions of a test – one graded by proctors, the other entirely self-graded, with a small monetary reward (10 cents per correct answer). They found an incidence of cheating in the self-graded answers, no surprise there.

The experimenters gave the same tests to another group of students, but first made those students do a task designed to make them think about morality and honesty. One group of students had to write out as many of the Ten Commandments as they could remember. Another group was asked them to simply sign the statement, “I understand that this study falls under the MIT honor system.”

These moral reminders had the effect of eliminating all (!) of the statistically significant cheating — with either one of those moral reminders in place, the students in the self-graded group had results that were statistically indistinguishable from the proctor-graded group.

(Interestingly enough, changing test conditions to make easier to cheat without getting caught didn’t affect the numbers much — once students decided to cheat, they cheated at the same rate. The only factors that changed their results were impossibility (proctor-graded exams), and the moral reminder.)

Now, as a law professor, I hear occasional reports of ethical lapses in exam taking. I don’t know how widespread any particular problem is, but I’d like to discourage any cheating on my exams. Ariely’s research suggests that many people are fundamentally honest (more than expected), but also that people are more honest when they are given a gentle reminder about the importance of honesty.

And so I’m planning on giving my students a “nudge,” going forward. I’m going to require all students, before the exam begins, to sign a basic honor code statement — along the lines of “I agree to comply with all TJSL honor code requirements regarding student ethics and honesty.”

I don’t know that it will have exactly the same effect as in the MIT experiments. Ariely’s experiments involved relatively trivial sums of money; it may be harder to deter dishonesty where the much more significant reward of law school grades is at stake. But I don’t think that a nudge like this will hurt — and I’m guessing that it will probably deter at least some potential bad behavior.

Have others of our readers tried something of this sort? To what extent has (or hasn’t) it worked for you?

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3 Responses

  1. Jens says:

    “I’m going to require all students, before the exam begins, to sign a basic honor code statement — along the lines of “I agree to comply with all TJSL honor code requirements regarding student ethics and honesty.””

    Is there a legal basis for such an requirement?

  2. John Steele says:

    i think stanford requires this, as all my exam answers finish with an acknowledgment of the honor code.

  3. Lawrence Cunningham says:

    GW Law School requires students to certify compliance with the honor code when submmitting all evaluative devices. My guess is it has an effect similar to that reported from this study.