Addressing Plagiarism

If you’ve taught for any length of time, you’ll probably have to confront plagiarism. Even in the age before the Internet, students plagiarized, though it might be a little easier to do now than it was when you were in high school. A variety of tools can help you detect plagiarism, but what are you supposed to do about it?

First of all, consider the age of your students. I think if you have middle schoolers, they likely don’t know or haven’t learned how to attribute quotes. Students should be taught how to attribute information. Model it. Teach them to use just the part of the quote they need. I have a handout on integrating quotes that might be helpful.

Teach students what plagiarism is and how to avoid it. Barry Gilmore’s book Plagiarism: Why It Happens, How to Prevent It can help you. Melissa Vosen has a great article in the July 2008 issue of English Journal entitled “Using Bloom’s Taxonomy to Teach Students About Plagiarism.” I’ve used it for two years (and will use it again in January) and have found it to be an excellent mini-unit for helping students understand what plagiarism is and how to avoid it. Obviously preventing plagiarism is the best possible means of handling it, but when it happens, and it’s probably a question of when and not if, keep in mind:

  • It’s not about you. The student doesn’t necessarily plagiarize because he/she dislikes you or your class. It’s an act of either laziness or desperation that has nothing to do with the personal feelings the student has for you or your class. You shouldn’t make it personal when you handle it.
  • Consequences are important. Your school probably has a policy about plagiarism. Follow it. That means the student will need to be punished even if he/she is contrite and promises never to do it again.
  • Move on. After the consequences have been given, forgive the student. Go ahead and check their work more carefully in the future. That’s common sense. Don’t make the student feel as if they have irreparably damaged their relationship with you.
  • Make sure the parents know. It might be a good idea to address parents from the point of view of a parent—show your concern and assure the parent that though there will be consequences, you understand it was a mistake and will be moving on and putting it behind you. Assure the parent the student will have a second chance. Parents need to know because any consequences will likely impact the student’s grade.
  • Examine the assignment. Is there something about it that made it too difficult for the student to do? Or was the topic the kind of topic that invites plagiarism because it’s a really commonly assigned topic? Is there anything you can do to improve the assignment so that students won’t be tempted to plagiarize? One suggestion I have is to construct the assignment around an authentic audience and task. For example, instead of framing the topic like this: “Analyze Beowulf’s heroic characteristics using textual evidence,” try “You are King Hrothgar. Queen Huffgar the Wise has written you in desperation. She has a horrible problem with Acromantulas in her kingdom, and she has just learned that your own kingdom was recently rid of two terrible monsters. She wants to know if you can recommend the services of a hero who might be able to do the same for her kingdom. Write a letter of recommendation to Queen Huffgar for Beowulf’s services as a hero. Use examples of Beowulf’s heroic prowess from Beowulf.” Those two writing tasks are asking students to do the same thing. One seems like a lot more fun to write (my opinion, of course, given I wrote the task).

Do you have any tips for teachers with how to address plagiarism? Please share in the comments.

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