Practical Tips to Prevent Plagiarism
By Meagan Gillmore
Students plagiarize. But they don’t create the problem. Often, teachers do. Some assignments are easy to plagiarize. Teachers need to create assignments that require more than Google searches to complete.
“Plagiarism prevention is important, but it’s not really the point,” says Kate Johnson-McGregor, a high school librarian in Brantford, ON and president of the Ontario School Library Association.
Teachers need to help students think critically. This means “building meaningful questions and then building meaningful inquiry,” Johnson-McGregor says.
Students need to apply their knowledge. Instead of writing reports about a specific bird for example, students can design a bird that could survive in an ecosystem they’ve studied, like a desert, suggests Johnson-McGregor. Students can build castles with Minecraft, and not just write reports about them. Projects where students have to create things can’t be plagiarized, and they help students think critically.
“In many ways, teachers are the engineers of plagiarism by giving assignments that are either way too difficult or way too boring,” says Neil Andersen, president of the Association of Media Literacy in Ontario and a former classroom teacher.
Some subjects, like English, lend themselves more easily to plagiarism. Thousands of students write essays analyzing Shakespearean plays each year. Annual papers on Romeo and Juliet or Macbeth, however, can become opportunities for both teachers and students to think critically and show some creativity. Before giving an assignment, teachers need to reconsider how they teach the material. “Oftentimes, English teachers treat literature like it’s clockwork,” says Andersen. “It’s almost like dissecting a frog.”
People don’t read Shakespeare’s plays centuries after his death to study iambic pentameter. People are attracted to literature for the “life connection” they feel with the characters as well as the different worldviews and perspectives literature exposes them to, says Andersen. Teachers need to focus on these connections in their teaching, and their assessment. Students can compare how classic literature and modern entertainment address similar themes. They can analyze characters and then discuss how they relate to them. Personal reflections can’t be plagiarized, and these types of questions show students are reflecting on what they’re studying. “We want to get students to think originally,” Andersen says, “and not originally to the world, but originally to the student.”
Keeping students engaged in assignments makes them less likely to plagiarize. Teachers can fight boredom by crafting thought provoking assessments. When Andersen was teaching, he and his students often worked together to develop assignments. But assignments also need to be appropriate to the students’ skill level. They need to build on what students already know, while challenging them to learn more.
Many students plagiarize because they’re overwhelmed. They don’t believe they can do the assignment well, says Moira Ekdahl, a teacher-librarian in Vancouver, BC. They plagiarise because they’re scared they can’t do the work on their own.
The consequences of being caught plagiarizing—failing an assignment, or in some cases, possibly having to change schools—may make things even more stressful. In college and university, plagiarism is often viewed as the worst academic offense a student may commit.
“We have the tendency to impose that set of understandings on students in school without being very forgiving about that,” says Ekdahl. Students may not have the confidence to admit they don’t understand an assignment. They may struggle with citing sources or paraphrasing other people’s ideas properly. Teachers need to explain these skills well, and “be prepared for the fact that kids won’t get it right for a while. It takes practice,” she says.
Teachers need to teach proper citation methods. (Johnson-McGregor suggests teachers introduce students to electronic resources that can provide proper citations.) Students need to learn how to find and identify credible sources online. They may not know how to figure out the sources of information they read on the Internet. Digital literacy is key.
Intellectual property is hard to explain. A culture of downloading, file-sharing, and mash-ups can make it even more confusing. Students are encouraged to make things, but they aren’t often taught about copyright or how to properly credit sources.
The idea of owning an idea is “nebulous,” says Johnson-McGregor. She compares it to sharing. Citing sources is similar to asking for permission to borrow something that belongs to someone else, she says.
Teachers need to work with students while they’re researching assignments. Students may struggle to explain what they’ve learned in their own words. Teachers can ask students to write about what they’re researching, or explain their project to teachers, says Johnson-McGregor. This gives students opportunities to practise paraphrasing, and helps teachers determine who needs more help.
Personal connections are key, even if a teacher suspects plagiarism. Teachers don’t need tools like turnitin.com to detect it. They will recognize if a student is submitting work that differs from previous assignments. A quick Google search will determine if they’ve copied someone else’s work.
Some educators advise against using turnitin.com, saying it focuses too much on catching students doing something wrong, and not enough on prevention or helping students learn from their mistakes. “It is not a bad thing,” says Johnson-McGregor of the site. “But I think that the focus is kind of like closing the barn door after the horse has bolted.”
Working with students can help prevent plagiarism, but it’s also beneficial when plagiarism occurs. Sometimes, it’s appropriate to give students zero for plagiarising assignments. There are other possible responses, like asking them to redo do the assignment. “It’s about giving them more chances to get it right and more practice,” says Ekdahl.
When Johnson-McGregor was a classroom teacher, she worked closely with students who had plagiarized to produce better assignments. This could be a blessing and a curse. It gave students an opportunity to do something again and fix their mistakes—a rare opportunity in life, she says.
To do that, however, meant spending a lot of time with her. “That sometimes is more torture than just having done it in the first place,” Johnson-McGregor says.
Meagan Gillmore is a freelance writer in Toronto.