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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Beat the Cheat: Teaching Students (and Parents) It's Not OK to Copy

When a teacher takes a stand against plagiarism, the ensuing showdown can be painful.
By Kim Bochicchio

I was about to begin my first year teaching high school English when I got the news that students entering college from area high schools had a reputation for plagiarism. Determined to break this embarrassing -- and illegal -- habit, at least in my own students, I went on the attack.

Credit: Wesley Bedrosian

During the first weeks of school, I explained to the students what constituted plagiarism and gave them techniques to avoid it. I focused on the dangers of cutting and pasting, lazy paraphrasing, and the habit of borrowing information from the paper of another student. Long question-and-answer periods followed these talks, with students stymied by certain facts.

Some students said they knew never to plagiarize from a book, but they didn't think words published on the Internet were similarly protected. They wanted to know how a teacher might find plagiarism. I explained that certain Web sites existed to help easily identify the transgression.

At the end of these sessions came the moment of truth. I explained that the penalty for plagiarism in my class would be a zero on the offending project. After that, I had each student sign a sheet stating that plagiarism had been explained to them, and that they were welcome to ask me any questions about the practice. When papers were submitted to me or any other teacher, students accepted full responsibility -- and liability -- for the penalty if they were found to have cheated.

My first English classes were a nightmare; plagiarism was blatant and unrestrained. Students still did not believe that plagiarism is a crime. They assumed they would get another chance if they were caught, or that plagiarizing one sentence would be overlooked.

They found a variety of ways to test me in the early days. One student borrowed his parents' credit card and paid for a paper from an online site. This student denied his actions until the identical paper, printed from the same Web site, was handed to him. Another student tried the copy-and-paste method of plagiarism, but he forgot to remove the URL from the bottom of the page. Twice, students handed in identical papers, changing only the name at the top. Tears followed, but the grade remained the same.

In conferences with these students, I found the reasons for plagiarism were as varied as the students who tried it. The student-athlete who plagiarized an essay about the life of Thomas Jefferson cited lack of time-management skills as his excuse. One girl told me that she plagiarized because she could not write a paper that would be worthy of the grade her parents expected of her.

Each plagiarizer received a zero as a project grade, which in many cases caused parents to schedule conferences to plead their children's cases. I repeated my mantra to them: "Plagiarism is a crime. Each student knew the penalty from the first day of school."

In the beginning, I made many enemies. I earned the reputation as the teacher who gave students zeros on tests for "only plagiarizing one sentence." The mother of the first student I caught plagiarizing excused her child's act as something everyone in the class did; the only problem was that her son was the one I caught.

The battle lines had been drawn, but I waged my war against plagiarism, determined that, for my students' sake, I would not -- could not -- lose. As an educator, I needed to know that my students would be prepared for college, where there were no excuses for using someone else's words without giving proper credit.

Credit: Wesley Bedrosian

In the years that followed, more students took the plagiarism promise seriously. Students came to me with questions about plagiarism, and together we worked on their papers to make sure they were cited correctly. Open communication was the tool that allowed students to feel comfortable stopping in during my free period to ask questions about avoiding plagiarism.

And then one day, it happened. Four years after my assault on plagiarism began, I had my first year of plagiarism-free writing. I had succeeded -- or at least I had won a one-year reprieve from plagiarism and angry parents.

Kim Bochicchio is a ninth-grade English teacher in Dunmore, Pennsylvania.

Comments (22)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Donna Z.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a elementary principal and also teach at the university. Plagiarism starts starts as early as 3rd grade! All teachers need to talk to their students about this issue starting in elementary school.

Mary J's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I asked a fifth grade student to correct the plagiarism in a paper he submitted as his own work (after I had taught the students about plagiarism, assuming nothing and therefore teaching it). His father called my principal irate because he had learned at his college, he claimed, that if you didn't use quotation marks you didn't have to give credit to the source. I was incredulous that someone with a college education could believe such a thing, as well as extremely disappointed that my principal did not correct him.

I have no problem with discussing problems with parents, but you'd think they'd take a moment to research before they started challenging their child's teacher.

Beth Shaum's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

How many teachers out there who have students do most of their writing in class still encounter this problem? I set aside two weeks worth of class time for every writing assignment for my 6th grade students and that makes a huge difference in avoiding the plagiarism issue. When you're working and conferencing with students regularly, sometimes daily, often the issue never comes up. Teachers should go on the offensive with this issue rather than the defensive.

Scott Miles's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I was thrilled to read about Kim Bochicchio's successful campaign against plagiarism. I teach photography at the college level. All of our students intend to become professional visual artists (photographers and related fields). Our students quickly learn that they will sell the use of their images (intellectual property) to make a living. However, too many do not show that same respect for the written word. We have implemented an academic integrity lesson in the first course, with frequent reinforcement throughout the curriculum. Students found to have plagiarized generally receive an "F" for the course (not just the project). Additionally, most are suspended from school for a minimum of one or more terms, and a maximum of permanent dismissal.

We had previously assumed that students entering college would fully understand plagiarism issues. Many did not. Since implementing an academic integrity lesson developed by Ida Jones and Judith Scott of the California State University Fresno, our students have a significantly better understanding of the issues, and plagiarism cases have declined steadily. Proactive measures such as Ms. Bochicchio's will be very helpful to students throughout their education and careers.

Scott Miles
Professional Photography Program Director
Brooks Institute
Santa Barbara, CA

Dr Richard Kennedy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Plagiarism not only happens at high school level. As a college professor I received many papers with a "lifted" sentence or section. One student sent me the paper via email, the hyperlinks were in blue, underlined, and when clicked on they worked taking me to the source. My policy is "no exceptions, no excuses, no sad stories."

Amber's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I remember back when I was in 5th grade, we had a contest to write and illustrate books.

The winner lifted every single line from the now classic "All The Money in the World" by Bill Brittian (the hour long movie version had been broadcast a few weeks before). It kind of blows my mind that ANY teacher would have believed a 10 year old child could have written a book that is now used to teach elementary economics....

I remember being told at the time that 'teachers are never wrong'.

Cheri's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

We had our 2008 valedictorian plagiarize their speech at graduation. (He got a video of "The Perfect Graduation Speech" from YouTube...and presented it word for word without citations). The school stripped him of his title. A week later, his parents threatened them with a law suit. They re-instated him. From what I hear from his classmates, he has cheated all through school. Who is he really hurting? Himself. And..he wants to be a doctor!! Just wait until he gets kicked out of the BIG state school that he is going to! I teach middle school and all about plagiarism in my computer class and it amazes me how many still many students still thinks that it is OK as long as you do not get CAUGHT!!

Bob Eldridge's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a recently retired math teacher at the middle school level as well as an advisor to the National Junior Honor Society. About 5 years ago 7 of our team's students who had just qualified for entry in the Honor Society blatantly plagiarized a science paper which was part of an assigned project. As in the article above, the science teacher had devoted time prior to giving the assignment discussing with the students what constitutes plargiarism and the consequences of attempting to use someone else's work as your own.

They were stripped of their nominations 2 days before inductions and had to try to requalify the following year.

There were tears, denials, and parental interventions - but we had a strong principal, who, when armed with the evidence, backed us up. The following year the word got out that plagiarism was cheating and that there were consequences for attempts to trying.

Eric Atkinson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

While I too find the stand against the theft of intellectual property morally laudible, I have found that we as teachers will sometimes promote the very actions that we are so vocally against in what we accept.
How many times have stundets turned in a worksheet in which the "short answer" section is copied in its entirety from the textbook. This is also plagerism and many times we not only accept it but encourage it with phrases like "The answer is right there." or "What does the book say about it?" Students tend to accept this as a sanction to take the exact words of the text and repeat them back.
I have found that in looking for the plagerized webpage that deftermining the original page has been plagerized by other sites so that the exact phrase used in a student's paper is repeated multiple times. The popular conception seems to be that if it is on the internet then it is free game to steal.
Showing that we must be ever vigilant and not let these thefts slide.

Jackie 's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

When we ask students to write papers that include information from sources other than their own thoughts, we are asking them to synthesize - a very difficult task. I would suggest that we not only teach them what plagiarism is, but we actually teach this skill directly. Many of my students in a Masters level content literacy class report that no teacher actually demonstrated the thinking skills used to synthesize information from two or more sources. Modeling and thinking through examples aloud in a class would be a welcome complement to the zero tolerance stance.

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