Prevent the Plague! (Ten Ideas to Eradicate Plagiarism From Schools)


Copyright (c) Photo courtesy of 123RF Stock Photo

First a confession: I have only had a personal Internet connection at home for just over a year now. Before that, I used my work connection and hung around in cafés. Now, I can look up absolutely anything I want. It has changed my life to such an extent that I am beginning to wish that reality was more like my online life: I desperately want to be able to click on hyperlinks hovering over things in the real world I want to find out more about.

Our students cannot remember a time before the Internet. For them, access to the world wide web is not an amazing privilege, but a basic fact of life. Unfortunately, many of their teachers still think it is astounding that they can simply find out whatever you ask of them, and set insipid, overly-simple ‘content-biased’ research tasks. Our students can thus spend an hour or two on the Internet, cut, paste, shuffle a few things around and hand in their assignments.

This simply will not do. It defeats the whole point of trying to teach them research skills in the first place. Instead of encouraging independent thought, insight, critical thinking and the twin skills of analysis and synthesis, we are asking them to regurgitate facts and ideas. Moreover, those ideas are mostly pilfered directly from their sources.

Plagiarism is a plague in schools, and it is spreading fast. If we don’t work actively and collectively towards eradicating it, we are surely doing our students a huge disservice. Nevermind what might happen to them if they are caught swindling ideas at university, we are teaching them that it is fine to steal (as long as you don’t get caught). Moreover, we are teaching them that facts are something to be found and regurgitated… thinking is not required.

Here follows a few pointers on stamping out the plagiarism in schools. (Please feel free to add your own ideas at the end of this post.)

Be pro-active: Talk to them about what research projects should involve and about what exactly plagiarism is. Allow them to ask questions and show them a few good and bad examples. Many students simply do not know what plagiarism is, beyond it is ‘not in my own words’.

Plagiarism-proof your projects: Set research tasks that require students to think about what they’ve researched. Thus, instead of asking them to research the life and times of Shakespeare, for example, get them to comment on why so many sources differ on his biography. Thus, instead of ‘what?’, ask ‘why?’.

Policies to penalize plagiarism: We must put school-wide policies in place so that students know that if they transgress, the consequences are non-negotiable.

Police the problem: Not enough teachers check for plagiarism. There are numerous ways to do this, but in general, typing a suspicious phrase in quotation marks into Google does the trick. You could even have them do it themselves if you have enough computers. My rule is that I check at least three phrases. This is usually enough.

Pilfering and pasting: Teach students that cutting and pasting, removing hyperlinks and changing a few words is still plagiarism. Telling students to present information ‘in their own words’ is the reason for this problem. Instead, we should tell them to present their FINDINGS / IDEAS in a narrative of their own THOUGHTS

Teach students good research skills. One source (usually Wikipedia) is never enough, and sites ending in .com need to be treated with suspicion. Get them to interrogate the reliability of the sources they find. This can actually be quite useful when students put together their first draft as this kind of reflection can lead to some interesting insights.

Practice what you preach: If you constantly cut and paste information into lesson presentations and assignments, you are telling them it is acceptable to do the same. Saying you are too busy to do this properly gives them permission to say the same thing. Customize your lessons so that they are uniquely yours. Your students will then be more likely to do the same thing for their assignments. (Incidentally, this also applies to pictures – if they have been copyrighted, and they are used – by teachers or by students – without acknowledgment, it is plagiarism.)

Paper trail: Encourage students to hand in rough research. Printing out wads of paper can be very wasteful, however. Why not ask them to use a digital tool like Evernote or Diigo and then to share this with you?

Process and pre-mark: Encourage students to complete at least one draft and to let someone check it for potential problems, as well as for the level of thinking involved. Set out rubrics and checklists to assist with this process. If you see this as a massive amount of work, let them ask a peer or even a parent for help in checking their draft.

Pliable Projects: Not all projects need to be the same. You can set ‘literature reviews’ where students find out and summarise (and perhaps comment on) what particular sources have to say. You can also do the research for them and get them to use these common sources to answer higher-order questions. I use to curate sources for students.

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