Tips for Teachers: Dealing with Plagiarism
By: Megan Smith
With Melania Trump’s recently plagiarized speech at the Republican National Convention, the media has been abuzz about plagiarism. Yet for teachers and students, issues of academic integrity are recurrent. In our most recent weekly digest, we compiled a list of resources to help writers of all kinds identify and avoid plagiarism. Today, we focus on the role teachers play in teaching about and dealing with plagiarism in the classroom.
1) Teach students about plagiarism in the classroom, even if they should have "learned it" already.
Repetition of information, especially spaced repetition (1), improves learning. Learning about plagiarism is no different. Past a certain point, it seems reasonable to expect that students know not to turn in someone else’s paper, or not to copy full paragraphs word-for-word into their papers. However, maintaining academic integrity and avoiding plagiarism as a whole can be much more complicated. Teaching these nuances may not be appropriate for elementary and middle school students. But, if students more frequently learn about plagiarism early, they can continue to build their knowledge base and will be better prepared when they get to high school and college to tackle these larger issues.
If you teach a class for more advanced students, it is important to remember that students may not have yet mastered the more nuanced issues of academic integrity. For example, even my upper-level undergraduate students often struggle to determine when they should use quotes or when they should paraphrase information. When they try to paraphrase, they often have trouble determining if their words are different enough from the original source. Other questions that come up are: how to cite references appropriately (especially non-academic sources such as blogs, interviews, or previous class notes), how often to cite a given reference within the body of their paper, how to switch between two sources in the body of a paper when discussing both intermittently, and how similar is “too similar” when it comes to wording. These questions are nuanced, and repeated instruction from many teachers across a number of years of school ought to help.
2) Have students go through the Indiana University Plagiarism Training.
The Indiana University training program is fantastic for advanced high school students through graduate students. It covers more advanced issues that students often struggle with (some of them are mentioned under point 1). It is all online and allows the user to pick among five different levels of tutorials from basic training all the way to the expert level. The tutorial allows students to register as either undergraduate college students / advanced high school students, or master’s / doctoral graduate students.
After the tutorial, a certification test is available. There is a large test bank, so students will not all get the same questions. There is a wide variety of questions, some with very subtle forms of plagiarism and improper citations. Further, if a student does not pass the first time they will receive information about the types of mistakes they are making (but not which questions they got right or wrong), so they have to learn the information to pass the test rather than memorize answers. Finally, once the student passes they will receive a certificate with a unique identification number. This number can be verified on the website to ensure that the certificate is legitimate. Indiana University has made it very difficult to cheat on the plagiarism test!
Of course, this isn’t the only resource available to learn about plagiarism. We included 5 in our most recent weekly digest on plagiarism.
3) Show your students examples of plagiarism beyond just word-for-word plagiarism.
As I mentioned earlier, copying an entire paragraph or even paper should be clearly recognized as plagiarism by most students who have had any sort of instruction about plagiarism. Problems tend to arise more frequently when a few words are changed. How much of a change counts as original work? Misunderstanding these issues can lead to students accidentally plagiarizing. (Misunderstanding this can also lead to students “borrowing” each others’ papers and changing a few words here and there, thinking the paper is now original, or at least appears original.) Giving students concrete examples promotes learning (2), and having students work out examples on their own works well too! As students see a number of different types of examples, and get these examples spaced out across years of school, they will better understand plagiarism and how to avoid it.
4) Find out what your school's policy is about plagiarism, and follow it.
At my school there is a clear plagiarism policy, and I actually think it is quite good. If students are caught plagiarizing, the incident is to be reported (via email) to the Vice President of Academic Affairs. It is a simple process, and the incident is put in a confidential file that no one else sees. If an incident is reported and the student already had a file, then both incidents are pushed forward to the Academic Integrity Board to be reviewed. From there, a number of punishments are possible given the nature of the two issues that were reported.
I like this policy a great deal, because it allows for the students to make a mistake (either an error in judgment or a true misunderstanding of what constitutes plagiarism). The student is still reported, so they understand the severity of the situation, but there is not a harsh school-level punishment, yet. I’ve heard of a number of policies like this, at least in higher education institutions. However, this type of policy only works if teachers report the incidents, even if it seemed like a genuine mistake! I’ve heard of professors not wanting to make a big deal out of “smaller” incidents, but the fact is it only becomes a big deal if the student is a repeat offender.
Whatever policy your school has, it is important to follow it and to clearly tell students, either in the syllabus or the classroom rules, how plagiarism will be handled.
5) Come up with a plagiarism assignment to give to students if they break plagiarism rules.
Recently, I came up with a plagiarism assignment that I keep on hand in cases where I catch students plagiarizing in their papers. I do always follow my school’s plagiarism policy (explained in tip 4), and if a student has been turned in for plagiarism previously, then they deserve to be reviewed by the Academic Integrity Board. However, I still have the freedom to decide how incidents should be handled in my own class. I believe policies are only useful if they are applied consistently, and so I consistently give students a 0 on assignments where I find plagiarism. However, some incidents do seem to be more egregious than others. I keep an assignment on file to give to students when they break the rules, allowing them to get some of their points back through the additional assignment. (My assignment is to go through the Indiana University training, mentioned above. If I come across many students who have already completed it, I’ll need to come up with something else!)
My hope is that this assignment allows for a less severe blow to students’ grades if they do make a mistake, and allows for them to learn something about how to avoid plagiarism and the importance of academic integrity in the process.
(1) Kang, S. H. (2016). Spaced repetition promotes efficient and effective learning: Policy implications for instruction. Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 3, 12-19.
(2) Rawson, K. A., Thomas, R. C., & Jacoby, L. L. (2014). The power of examples: Illustrative examples enhance conceptual learning of declarative concepts. Educational Psychology Review, 27, 483-504.