That moment when you realize a student’s work is not his own…

Students must be taught explicitly about academic integrity and plagiarism. Here’s how

By Dennis Pierce

Mitchell Langbert had a student in his business administration course at Brooklyn College who was an exceptional writer—or so he thought.

A year later, Langbert’s former student was embroiled in a messy divorce. “His wife called me at home to tell me that his girlfriend—the reason for the divorce—had written the papers he submitted,” Langbert says. “It was, of course, too late to do anything.”

Most students can be counted on to do what they’re supposed to. But nearly every teacher has a story about the time he or she discovered that a student had copied a paper, or cheated on a test, or “borrowed” someone else’s work.

In some cases, these transgressions can be chalked up to simple mistakes, such as when a student fails to properly cite a source. But even these instances demonstrate that students must be taught the rules of academic integrity—and that teachers shouldn’t assume their students will know these automatically.

Elizabeth Kleinfeld, an English professor and director of the writing center at Metropolitan State University of Denver, has studied plagiarism and students’ use of sources at the college level. She has found that many students don’t understand the differences between paraphrasing, summarizing, and plagiarism.

Making matters more complicated is that proper citation is context-driven.

“In an academic setting, you might do something that is considered plagiarism—but it wouldn’t be considered plagiarism in another composing situation,” Kleinfeld explains. For instance, using boilerplate copy lifted from another source is common practice in the syllabi that instructors hand out to students at the beginning of a course.

“We expect students to understand the nuances of these different composing situations naturally, without giving them explicit instruction,” she says.

Kleinfeld says instructors should teach students how to use sources in the same way they would teach any other aspect of writing.

“Telling students ‘don’t plagiarize’ is not a teaching strategy. It is a warning,” she says. “To my mind, it’s like saying to students, ‘I’ll fail you if you don’t give a thesis statement,’ and then not giving any instruction on that.”

Teaching students about academic integrity should start in the early grades. Judith Wilhelmy taught in a small Massachusetts town for more than 30 years. Once, one of her fourth graders turned in a math homework assignment written in two different handwriting styles.

“When I asked her why the handwriting was different on the second half, she explained that her mother said she should go to bed—and the mother finished her homework,” Wilhelmy said. “I suggested that she start her homework earlier.”

Andrew Quagliata teaches a first-year business writing course at Cornell University. He has always taught his students how to cite and evaluate sources, as well as the difference between quoting and paraphrasing someone’s work. But an occurrence while teaching at another college led him to change how he gives written assignments.

“After I found one student guilty of plagiarism twice in a semester, the student admitted to me that he had never written an original paper in his academic career—and that he had never been caught before,” Quagliata says. “This experience has stayed with me, and it shaped how I develop prompts when assigning written work.”

At the start of each semester, Quagliata has his students write during class and submit work that he knows is original. “This helps me get a baseline understanding of their ability,” he explains. He also designs prompts that are less likely to lead to cheating, such as asking students to write about their personal experiences.

Quagliata finds that his students come to college with various levels of awareness about plagiarism. “Some high schools seem to cover the topic well,” he says, “while others do not seem to give much attention to the topic.”

Before students write a research paper, he gives explicit instruction about how to use sources correctly.

“As the start of the discussion, I get the sense that most students feel like this is an unnecessary review,” he says. “However, a brief ungraded quiz on the topic helps them realize they might have gaps in their understanding about how to cite sources, how to paraphrase, and when to use direct quotes.”

Students appreciate that Quagliata shows them mistakes others have made in the past. “I express that I am on their side and want to answer any questions they have before they submit their assignments for a grade,” he says. “This helps them feel comfortable asking questions.”

He says his best strategy for preventing plagiarism is asking students to bring drafts of their work to class for peer review. “The more work a student completes in advance of the deadline,” he says, “the more time they have to ask questions—and the less likely they are to plagiarize.”

Dennis Pierce is a freelance education writer living in Massachusetts.

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