Talking Teaching

April 25, 2014

plagiarism & managing it

Filed under: education, university — Tags: , , , , , — alison @ 10:14 pm

I’m marking first-year essays at the moment. Because these students have had little or no practice at writing scientific essays before they arrive in my class, we give them a lot of learning support. There’s a marking rubric, which students get along with the questions at the very beginning of the semester. (Alas! This doesn’t seem to stop the last-minute rush-combined-with-sheer-panic!) We spend time on tuts discussing how to structure an essay, how to cite and to reference & to paraphrase, and so on. Both the senior tutor & I are more than happy to comment on drafts – some of my colleagues think we’re nuts, but giving formative feedback early in the piece significantly improves the final essay & means less time is spent at that end. And this year I followed the example of my friend Margaret Henley and ran a drop-in session in the student centre: I was there, along with the Science librarian and staff from Student Learning, and the 50 or so students who attended moved around between us depending on what they needed. (Far more time-efficient then having the same number of students turn up to see us in drips and drabs.

And of course we also discuss at some length the issues and concepts relating to plagiarism, and students’ essays are put through the Turnitin system on submission. (This year I set it up so that they could see their score after submission, which they seem to quite like.) So I was interested to see this story on plagiarism and cheating in NZ universities,  in the NZ Herald a few days ago. It was notable that there was a bit of variation between institutions in the number of instances of cheating that were detected, which I suspect has more to do with processes than with actual differences in (dis)honesty in the student bodies. We all seem to handle it differently, too; my own institution has a student discipline committee, to which all instances of suspected plagiarism are supposed to be referred. I like this system – it is a lot more transparent in that the paper convenor doesn’t end up being the judge, jury, and executioner (with all the potential conflicts that this entails), and more consistent because the same set of standards, and outomes, is applied across the board. Which is probably why I felt more than a little uncomfortable to see that, in one instance reported in the Herald story, an individual lecturer seemed to be making the judgement call. Maybe that was just the way the story came across in the paper. I hope so.

There’s an interesting discussion here on why students plagiarise, which suggests that maybe we, the teachers, have something to do with it in that we maybe don’t do enough to help our students develop their own ‘voice’ and the confidence to use it:

Students… often stumble into plagiarism (or rush head-long into it) because they either cannot find or do not trust the authority of their own voice.

The author, Nick Carbone, concludes that

[h]elping students find their own voice, their own words, so that they can distinguish better their voices and words from the voices and words of the sources they research, hear, read, and that really, when you think about it, always already surround them, seems to me more and more, the best way to help students understand, really, what plagiarism is all about.

I’m not sure how feasible it actually is, in a paper that’s not first & foremost a writing paper, to help all students find their ‘voice’. (Nor am I sure that all academics would view it as part of their role to do so.) And I definitely agree with Jonathan Bailey that the ultimate responsibility for plagiarism does rest with the student. But – as he says – teachers can do a lot both to educate students about academic integrity and to minimise the temptation and the pressure to plagiarise. For example, the pressures involved around large high-stakes assignments may make a spot of cheating look more attractive. Bailey lists the following steps to reduce plagiarism’s allure (but also reminds us that the problem’s never going to go away completely):

  1. Educate on Plagiarism: Teach students clearly what it is and how to avoid it. Discuss plagiarism openly and without scare tactics.

  2. Craft Plagiarism-Resistant Assignments: Use prompts that can’t be Googled, require multiple drafts and include in-class portions when possible.

  3. Connect With Students: Offer to help and give students the support they need so they are confident they can complete the assignment.

  4. Forgive Mistakes: Understand that mistakes happen and treat them as chances to teach, not discipline.

  5. Discipline Fairly: Those who clearly are trying to cheat should be disciplined fairly and strongly as appropriate.

Which makes me feel that we’re doing something right, in my first-year papers. (It also reminds me how frustrated I get to see the same questions pop up in tests and exams, year after year. What do people expect?!)

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