End Plagiarism Now: Let’s Ctrl-X the Essay

I read an Annie’s Mailbox advice column featuring a parent’s letter complaining about plagiarism charges leveled against her student:

The teacher ran the paper through one of the commercially available online programs designed to catch plagiarism, and part of one sentence popped up. She insists he copied the sentence from some book published in the 1950s and expects him to cite his source.

The parent argues that she walked the student through every step of the essay writing process and that no plagiarism occurred – that it’s mere coincidence that part of one sentence just happened to match the 1950s book.

Annie’s response:

[Y]ou need to be practical. If teachers use these online programs to check for plagiarized phrases, it makes sense for students to double-check their papers the same way.

Annie gave some solid advice: use the same tool as your teacher to make sure you don’t get pegged for plagiarism.

There’s gotta be a better way!

Clearly college students have a culture all of their own, and educators aren’t going to be able to change that without student buy-in.

But why can’t we be more creative in the assignments we give students?

Students copy and paste for two reasons, in my unscientific opinion: First, because it’s easy, and by pre-emptively running it through something like Turnitin.com, they can get away with it. Second, they plagiarize because their creative online activities generally center on re-using or re-appropriating someone else’s content – and fresh content is extremely accessible. They’re spending their free time connected to the internet and they’re doing amazing and hilarious things (just see Tumblr f0r good [and bad] evidence of this. But when it’s good, it’s gooooood).

I think the current education system enables plagiarism by continuing to emphasize essays as the default demonstration of content mastery. This is an assignment format that is extremely susceptible to becoming copy-and-paste masterpieces. Students have always plagiarized – it’s just much easier now. So let’s let students put their online creative urges to academic use by coming up with new ways of assessing their mastery of course content.

How about more presentations – but NOT with PowerPoint? Have you tried Glogs or VoiceThread? How about more group work with deliverables that mirrors what they’ll have to do in professional jobs? How about letting students come up with their own ways to show you they understand the course, without rigidly forcing them to produce 1000 words on the subject?

Let’s make assignments more interactive and more reflective of the culture that students and professional workers actually live in. Good writing skills are very important. But so is getting students engaged in the material they’re supposed to be studying. I bet, like me, you do your best work on subjects and mediums that are most engaging for you.

What do you think? Got any creative ideas for tackling the culture of plagiarism?

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