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Dealing with Plagiarism: Proactive, or Punitive?

Jim Moulton

Technology Integration and Project-Based Learning Consultant
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I have clear memories of sitting in the living room as a ten-year-old boy in 1965, on the couch with our family's volumes of Compton's Encyclopedia around me. I had been assigned the writing of a "report," and it had to be, let's say, two pages long. Because I was not invested in the work, I saw the real assignment as being required to fill two pages with relatively competent language that would be accepted by the teacher.

And so I utilized my two classic tricks of the trade: writing as large as I thought I could get away with, and taking text out of the Compton's and sort of rewriting it in my own words. Being a creative kind of kid, I saw it as a sort of challenge to see how easily I could complete the assignment. Was this the right thing to do? No. But, in short, "Hello, my name is Jim, and I have plagiarized."

Plagiarism is a complex human issue. But it is one all schools have to come to grips with in clear and consistent ways. I encourage educators to consider the specific tasks assigned, and avoid the assignment of tasks that have been done gajillions of times. If you assign the plain old President Report, or an Element Report, in 2006, I really think you are asking for it.

I advocate for real, community-involved project-based learning, but when you have to assign something along the lines of a President Report, how about making it something like this:

"Your former president has recently moved to our community. Making clear that you know your former president well and also have knowledge of our community, please answer the questions that follow in the form of a newspaper column written to tell the community about the arrival of our new, and most famous resident. Where has the former president chosen to live in our community, and why? How will his experience during his term(s) in office benefit our community? How might he get involved to make this a better place to live and work? What specific local issue will our former president choose to get involved in, and which side is he likely to take? On that issue, what arguments will he make, and, again, based on his term in office and other life experiences, why?"

How about in your classroom or school? Have there been changes in the types of assignments being made? How are you creatively dealing with plagiarism, and helping students understand the importance of intellectual integrity in a world where it is just so darn easy to copy and paste (and download)? Please share.

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Jim Moulton

Technology Integration and Project-Based Learning Consultant

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Chris O'Neal's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Great topic, and great ideas for dealing with it. I remember being at a regional meeting with a bunch of schools where this topic came up, and for a while people were solely staying on the topic of, basically, what to do to REACT to plagiarism/copyright issues, instead of how to deal with them, or be proactive in preventing them, teaching why it's inappopriate, etc. After a while the shift focused to creative ways of doing the kinds of things you suggest, and it ended up being a very productive and fun conference.

One other note. . . when I first started trying out project-based assignments such as the one you suggested, I was worried that it would take way too much time, or tons more effort on my part, etc. The opposite was actually true - students were so much more excited, I was more interested in their outcomes, and they put so much more effort into their work.


Virginia Malone's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Perhaps it is the nature of the assignments that encourages plagiarism.

Students have a difficult if not impossible time plagiarizing when assignments call for creative use of knowledge. Rather than asking for a report on insects, I would ask for a post card from an insect describing its travels through an ecosystem from egg to adulthood. The front of the card has to be a picture. All of the travels have to make sense.

Very difficult to copy the life cycle from a book. It just does not fit postcard type writing. I have used more complex forms of this type of activity in high school. Students cannot just copy from their neighbors either because the work is easily recognizable, i.e., no two are alike.

I do believe that students should learn what constitutes plagiarism and they should do some formal papers after they have amassed some information. I think it is very difficult for students to write good formal papers without some knowledge of the subject. Most adults do not write about totally unfamilar topics or topics that do not really interest them why should we expect more from our students.

We need to look at adults, beyond academics, do with knowledge and tailor our assignments to better mirror the adult world they will soon enter.


Heidi D's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have dealt with plagiarism on a few occasions during my tenure as a ninth grade teacher. Basically I have developed the proactive philosophy in my approach to teaching writing and research, but a few incidences have slipped through my well-guarded walls. I have always let the student do the assignment over, for a less significant grade, instead of failure. Some students didn't know they were plagiarizing, and others knew exactly what they were doing. The parents and principal are always contacted and informed of the decision about how I handle the issue. My philosophy is that school is for learning lessons. There is a big gray area when it comes to intentional vs. unintentional plagiarizing, and I want to give my students the benefit of the doubt.

Tanya's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I was a little worried about this teaching freshmen high school English. One of the required assignments is writing a paper complete with sources. As a special ed co-teacher I knew this would be especially difficult for kids who don't like and have success with writing to begin with.

My co-teacher and I spent most of the time explaining what quotes and paraphrases were and when to cite them. We stressed over and over that you could use others' words but you had to give them credit even if it was their idea. When the assignments were turned in only one student had plagiarized (we use and she was absent most of the time. We also had them actually write just a few paragraphs since the purpose was to make sure they could quote and paraphrase without plagarizing. They didn't need to write 1000 words to show us they got the point. Very clear expectations also played a part as they would frequently ask if something was plagiarizing.

For my small pull out LA class when we read "Romeo and Juliet" I had them come up with a final project instead of writing a paper (which is the assignment I had in high school). They decided to rewrite "Romeo and Juliet" into a comedy reader's theater. There was no way to plagiarize that. It was funny and they far exceeded my expecations too.

So I think expectations coupled with lots and lots of discussion on cheating and plagiarizing helps prevent it. And prevention is always better than the cure!

Peter Hughes's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I recently gave a great deal of thought to this as the result of an increase in plagiarism at the high school at which I am an assistant principal.

I believe that there are two pieces that need to be looked at. Do the students understand plagiarism and are we creating assignments that are so engaging and thought provoking that there is no way to put anything on the paper except their own thoughts?

First of all, are we educating students about the specifics of what plagiarism is? I suggest giving a mandatory unit in freshman English that has a quiz at the end assessing their understanding of plagiarism. After passing the quiz (which can be retaken until demonstrating mastery), it is kept on file as proof of their understanding of definitions of plagiarism for your school. If a student does plagiarize, at least you know that it was overtly discussed and assessed. This cuts down on the parent arguments.

Secondly, assessments need to be thought provoking and engaging. Rather than a simple regurgitation of information on a paper from the reading, try using lenses to look at the topic from. In the article example, the lens of the student's community is used to look at a presidential candidate. If you are interested in this, I would suggest the work of Grant Wiggins. His Big Ideas and Essential Questions are precisely the tool to use in creating assessments that force independent thought and analysis.

John E. Davies's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

From my industrial experience in marketing/advertising and working closely with copyright lawyers, and as an experienced science teacher, it is apparent that teachers are prime offenders of copyright laws and daily plagiarize others materials and writings. Teachers believe that as educators they have the "right" to "copy" anything, in any quantity, and they distribute it to their students...they think nothing of "copying" books,magazine articles, music, videos, pictures, etc. and their is no violation of the law. Nonsense!
Teachers need to design activities that tap student ideas/creativity as others have pointed out, and at the same time, "educate" their students in copyright law and why it matters. The Ipod-computer generation believe they can copy anything and there is no "harm" in doing so...after all mom, dad, and my teacher do it "all the time"! Whose teaching what here?
Adults have created, and are creating, a new "context" that fosters "cheating" in virtually every walk of life.

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