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
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Share

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 comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Kharee Postell's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Plagiarizing from the internet is not a crime technically unless it is infringing on a copyright, while it is morally wrong it is not illegal.

DEBBIE's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I worked for years in the newspaper business with a publisher who plagiarized the local newspaper. When turned into the top man of the chain, she was told to stop... no punishment... and she continued until several syndicated writers finally told then to terminate her or pay.

Matt's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The problem with that idea is that students in the 3rd grade cannot comprehend what plagiarism means (not including, of course, a wholly cut and paste operation).

Even in high school, I understood that when you quoted someone you had to cite it. I never truly comprehended the distinction between when something is sufficiently your own thought so that you don't have to cite it, and when something is sufficiently the thought of someone else, so that you did have to cite it.

I really did not understand the distinction between the two in high school. I only really understood it in college, when I was actually required to complete heavy- duty writing assignments, and my professor for my writing seminar explained IN DEPTH the mechanics of writing, and the process of synthesizing information and forming thoughts. Maybe you teachers should actually explain it to the kids, in depth, rather than destroying the grades and transcripts of children who very well may not know the difference between plagiarism and original work.

syd's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I can't believe that even parents don't understand plagiarism and it's dangers! You would think that parents would understand how horrible plagiarism is. I think it's amazing that parents would defend their children for doing that. The parents should be angry at the kid, who did something that is considered illegal, rather than being unfair and angry torward the poor teacher. I'm glad she got her break from having to deal with plagirism. It must be stressful.

Mirai's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

By second grade, i knew what plagiarism was. In New York one time, we were asked to do a on a place we knew. Any place or city. We were also supposed to write an essay on the place, too. This one girl i knew went onto a website and copied everything from it as her essay. She was given an automatic zero, and a note was sent home. However, she didn't stop. Finally, the school had enough of it and this girl was expelled. It surprises me when someone says "I'm going to get into Yale," and then she plagiarizes on a test. If you want to get far in life, you have to work on your own. Copying is out of the question.

John's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

plagarism is wrong cause it would feel bad if someone took credit for my work.

Freddy's picture

I think educators and their students have to check written work for improper citation or misappropriated content to avoid plagiarism.
Check this site:
It is is used to help verify the authenticity of undergraduate and graduate application documents.

Your Mother's picture

it's okay that student's copy. i think it is. i copied all the time, and honestly, i think that if they don't put it exactly how it is stated on the webstie, then it's no big deal. Piss off.

Cass's picture
Graduate Student, Writing Tutor, and Mentor

[quote]it's okay that student's copy. i think it is. i copied all the time, and honestly, i think that if they don't put it exactly how it is stated on the webstie, then it's no big deal. Piss off.[/quote]

Says the person who can't properly formulate a sentence or be bothered to capitalise words. It's illegal for a reason. You wouldn't steal a car and say it was, "okay because you do it all the time" to the police. Grow up.

Mrs.LTelfer's picture

You are telling my story exactly. Glad I'm not alone. I have taught in my districts middle school for 4 years now, and have noticed the same attitudes towards plagiarism; and the concept of Intellectual Property is even more confusing for them. In the past 3 years, an average of 10% of my students were caught plagiarizing. I hope I will see much more success soon.

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.