Confronting the student plagiarism dilemma

I’ll never forget the classmate at Ryerson University’s journalism school who approached me one day in second year some 20-something years ago and asked if he could copy one of my assignments.

I remember being appalled—disgusted, actually—that he wanted to pass off my hard work as his own. My work as his own. And I’m pretty sure most of my classmates would have felt the same way.

That’s why I find it so troubling nowadays when I catch one of my own students cheating.

Sadly, a 2008 article in the Ottawa Citizen suggests plagiarism is skyrocketing. At the University of Ottawa, just 22 cases of cheating were reported between 1998 and 1999. That’s in contrast to 145 cases reported in the 2005-2006 school year. That’s a seven-fold increase, if my math is correct.

Carleton didn’t track rates institution-wide, but in the faculty of arts and social sciences, the number of offences rose from 60 to 127 between 2003 and 2008—that’s a more than 100 percent increase in just five years.

Scary.

A 2006 study found 58% of first-years cheat

It’s probable that those growth numbers are representative of more global plagiarism statistics. Indeed, a news release from the University of Guelph reveals that 58 percent of first-year university students surveyed in a 2006 cross-Canada study admitted to cheating. The cheating included helping another student to cheat, copying from another student without that person’s knowledge, or cheating on a test or exam.

Many folks blame the apparent rise in academic dishonest on the Internet, which has created easy access to steal-able content. Some say that the loss of Grade 13 is forcing young people to go to college and university before they are mature enough to handle the stresses and workloads of post-secondary academia. Others say plagiarism hasn’t grown at all and that teachers are simply being more vigilant.

Whatever the case, there is a perception among educators that academic dishonesty is on the rise. Indeed, the University of Guelph study revealed that 43 percent of post-secondary faculty and teaching assistants believed cheating could be a big problem in Canada.

Each year, I catch at least two students plagiarizing. Usually, one has copied the other’s assignment.

It drives me nuts.

Students attend college to learn the practical skills they need to pursue their chosen careers and to achieve a certification that proves they’ve done the hard work and reached a certain standard.

Students who cheat are getting a dishonest leg up over the good guys.

It’s our job as teachers to protect the good guys who work their butts off to earn their qualifications.

So what am I going to do?

Today I’m at home learning how to use TurnItIn.com, an Internet-based anti-plagiarism tool that will require my students to submit their assignment electronically. Whey they do so, TurnItIn.com will scour their work for unoriginal content. TurnItIn will compare my students’ assignments to billions of articles in its database. That database contains more than 12 billion pages of digital content, including more than 100 million student papers and more than 80,000 commercial, academic, and professional publications and journals.

TurnItIn will help me catch plagiarizers, but it will also help me with one of my own challenges. While I am a professional writer I have embarrassingly illegible penmanship. Instead of writing my comments in pen on student papers, TurnItIn’s GradeMark feature allows me to type those comments and embed them.

There’s also a feature in GradeMark that enables the creation of new standard comments. I can write a comment once and then turn it into an expandable call-out that I can drag and drop into a student’s electronic paper any time afterward. With this feature, students will be able to read and understand my comments and the call-out drag-and-drop feature will save me a lot of time because I won’t have to write the same comments over and over again.

There’s also a feature that enables peer marking, thereby enhancing student critical thinking skills, but that subject may be a blog for another time.

If you haven’t already done so, I’d recommend you check out TurnItIn.com. I’ve known about it for a couple of years, but have never been able to devote time to learning about it. Just like any new teaching tool, it takes times to learn it. Gaining a basic understanding took me the better part of today and I’m still a long way from being TurnItIn literate.

Nonetheless, I think I’ll give it a try next semester.

And I’ll let you know how it goes.

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About teachingteacher

Business communications instructor, journalist, corporate communications writer and media trainer ... and Masters Candidate M.Ad.Ed.
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8 Responses to Confronting the student plagiarism dilemma

  1. I love any feature that lets me drag and drop stored comments. I do better marking because I make more comments, make lengthier, more specific comments, and I find it easy to amend the stored comments for each paper.
    Plus I get finished more quickly. 🙂

  2. On the topic of comments. A few years back an injury prevented me from inflicting my horrid handwriting on my students. In order to provide comments I had to make use of my computer’s voice-to-text tools.

    Once the learning hurdle was cleared I discovered that I was providing better comments and more in-depth ones. Previously, physical fatigue and and a worsening scrawl had caused me to ration my efforts.

    So, yes, technology in the classroom isn’t always about what you put in front of the students; it can be what you put to use to improve your own work behind the scenes.

  3. As a professional writer and blogger I am also concerned about student plagiarism. I, and many of my colleagues have had our works copied into essays. Quoting a few lines or paragraphs is fine, but there have been times when large sections of work has been used, or the work has been re-written slightly, but the ideas copied directly. That is not good research, or good writing. This happened when I was teaching, and the student’s “excuse” was, “well, if it’s on the Internet, it’s fair game.” No, it’s not. Someone created that work, and it cannot and should not be used without permission, As a writer, and as a teacher, I hope you talk about that in class, not just about students plagiarizing from each other.

  4. Hi Christine. Thanks for bringing this up. Yes, we do talk about this. And we quite clearly label it as stealing. I think that the use of an analogy might work well here. Stealing someone’s written work is just like stealing someone else’s automotive or aircraft design: it’s all intellectual property that is created by someone else. Having said this, it’s much easier to catch students who plagiarize from each other than from the Internet. Perhaps TurnItIn.com will help me with this.

  5. Sadly the news from the University of Waterloo this week shows us that plagiarism is occurring on both sides of the lectern. I think the response has to be swift and severe if we can protect academic integrity. Plagiarism erodes trust.

    • Hi Dominique.

      Thank you for pointing out the University of Waterloo story. I missed it. I think part of the problem is that folks sometimes don’t understand the true consequences of stealing someone else’s work or ideas. Many of my students think nothing of ripping off music or movies or software through Internet torrents. Indeed, they see it as a form of rebellion against big business. Curiously, many of these same students are headed towards creative careers where they’ll be the big losers and victims of this type of piracy. Of course, that wasn’t the case with the UoF story. Thanks again for sharing.

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