With the rising trend of alternative assessments in schools, students are often required to research certain topics and present the evidence of their learning in a specified format.
Plagiarism can occur when students appropriate information from one or multiple sources, and resort to what Rebecca Howard calls “patchwriting”, where they “copy from a source text and then delete some words, alter grammatical structures, or plug in one synonym for another”.
The easy access to information with the advent of the Internet makes it all the more tempting to simply search-select-copy-and-paste.
What is wrong with plagiarizing?
Plagiarized work compromises assessment validity since the score is no longer an accurate reflection of the student’s ability in the subject. From an ethical point of view, plagiarism is a form of academic dishonesty, no different from theft.
When confronted with evidence of plagiarism in their work, students often respond by saying: “That’s what my classmates are doing”, or “That’s what I have been doing since primary school.” Unless teachers make an effort to educate them, students are likely to persist in thinking that it is permissible to be given credit for work that is not done by them.
While the issue of plagiarism may be a challenging one given the digitalized world that we operate in, there are some practices teachers can adopt to reduce cases of plagiarism. Below are six of them.
- Design age- and ability-appropriate tasks
The two common reasons why students plagiarize are the lack of confidence in the subject and poor time management. Anxious about their underperformance in the subject and hard pressed for time, students may resort to plagiarism in order to meet the task requirements. Teachers should avoid setting overly difficult tasks and they should provide adequate instructional support to students, in order to build their confidence in completing the task without resorting to cheating.
- Have a common understanding of plagiarism
Pennycook highlighted that understanding plagiarism requires teachers to examine the “relationships among text, memory, learning, literacy, and cultural differences”. For example, to what extent are students allowed to incorporate expressions memorized from other sources into her own work – phrases, sentences, or paragraphs? At which point is it considered plagiarism? The understanding of what constitutes plagiarism is subject-specific, and highly dependent on what is being assessed. Teachers need to agree on what constitutes plagiarism in their subject and specific assessment tasks.
- Show task-specific examples of plagiarism
Students need to be shown specific examples of plagiarism in a particular task and the proper way of attributing their sources to avoid plagiarism. The expression of plagiarism can be different in each task, and expecting students to transfer their abstract knowledge of what plagiarism is to the various concrete tasks across subjects is a tall order for these young learners.
- Use plagiarism detection software
Investing in plagiarism detection software such as Turnitin saves teachers an inordinate amount of time typing phrases from students’ work into query boxes of search engines to determine the source texts. Such software is designed to report all the online sources of the plagiarized text, as well as quantify the extent of plagiarism in the submission.
- Mete out consequences with fairness and firmness
Schab in Schooling without Learning wrote that students plagiarize when there are no perceived consequences attached to the offence. To effectively counter plagiarism, penalty has to be meted out and enforced in a consistent manner. Ideally, the panel should include members from the Discipline and Student Development Committees (to provide the necessary counseling), who will work closely with the subject teachers concerned to look into the nature of the plagiarism. Parental support in educating the child is, of course, of paramount importance.
- Develop a culture of learning not competition
Among the cases we have handled, several of these students would have received a decent grade even without resorting to plagiarism. The reason they gave for cheating was often related to a strong desire to outperform their peers. When students are immersed in a highly competitive environment, where it is perceived that a difference in grade can have serious implications on her academic career, it becomes easier for them to yield to the temptation of plagiarism. Although the issue of a competitive education system is a complex one, we can as teachers put in effort to abate students’ zeal for one-upping their peers, and to divert their focus to the joy of learning.
Posted by: Mrs Jassie Teo
Raffles Girls’ School