“But, I Didn’t Mean to Plagiarize…”

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Author Bio: Beth Hammett lives on the Texas Gulf Coast with her husband, Mike. She is an award winning District Secondary Teacher of the Year, Regional Middle School Teacher of the Year, and College Instructor of the Year. She presents nationally on active learning strategies, adaptive learning, emotional intelligence, and 21st Century learners. Books include: Journal Writing in the Classroom, Developmental Writing Workshop, Natalie: Diary of a Senior Year, plus numerous educational articles. Beth’s products are posted on Teachers Pay Teachers under Educator Helper.

 

Students repeatedly have trouble with plagiarism, and with their constant use of today’s technology it’s a problem that is on the rise. Despite consequences of zeros on assignments, failings of classes, and expulsions from schools, “86% of high school students agree” they will cheat at some point in their educational journeys according to the No Cheating Ad Council “Cheating Fact Sheet.” Yet, hidden amongst the deliberate cheaters are the the hardworking, honest students who stand before their teachers with essay papers in hands and stricken looks on their faces. Panicked, they do their best to explain, “But, I didn’t mean to plagiarize…”

Every day in classrooms across America students encounter plagiarism issues: If parents help their kids with revisions, is it plagiarism? What if page numbers are left off in-text citations? How about individual thoughts and ideas contributed within small groups? Do improper citations equal plagiarism? There are several strategies educators and parents can use to help students understand and avoid plagiarism.

First, address plagiarism in early elementary grades. Encourage students to give credit to peers’ ideas, thoughts, and words during class discussions and lessons. Have students include authors, page numbers, and titles in paraphrases and summaries. Let students design individual copyright symbols followed by their signatures to include below their names on their class works, and use these copyrights to build Informal Works Cited pages when students use their classmates’ ideas, thoughts, and words. Include artists’ names on multimedia and pictures. Be sure to properly cite multimedia and photos on class handouts and presentations. Attribute idioms and phrases to proper cultural origins. Model the use of proper citations in and out of school settings. Once students are made aware of proper citations, they notice when educators and parents apply rightful ownerships to avoid plagiarizing others’ works.

Teach students to take pride in their ideas, thoughts, words, and work, or teach ethics. Placing importance on students’ contributions to discussions, creativity in problem solving, and application of skills on projects, allows for development of emotional intelligence and social skills. For me, this meant flipping my classroom so that students complete passive learning assignments, such as informative lectures, rote learning and practice of basic skills, video presentations, etc…outside of normal class time. During class, students apply and practice skills through activities, for example group projects, peer reviews/workshoppings, and writing essays. Now, students receive more one-on-one instructional and tutor time during class times, which has led to an increase in attendance, grades, and motivation. Plus, a flipped classroom set-up makes plagiarism issues easier to spot and address early on in the semester. When students take responsibility for their learning they develop confidence and pride in their works.

Another way to help students avoid improper use of others’ works is to discuss, debate, and practice what is and isn’t plagiarism as often as possible. Use plagiarism to spark discussions and debates that force students to use text evidence and proper citations to prove their points. My motto is: “If you even have to think about whether a sentence should be cited, then it probably should!” Have students challenge the motto; cite works used as proof. Practice plagiarism by asking students to paraphrase and summarize materials and to use proper citations. Show examples of plagiarized works, such as portions of Alex Haley’s Roots, and discuss famous singers, such as George Harrison and Robin Thicke, who have been accused of plagiarism. Have students start a “phrase craze”, where each student makes up her/his own phrase that gets passed on with the words attributed to the owner. See how long it takes before the creator’s name disappears from the phrase! How does it feel to have others plagiarize your words? Also, be sure students are aware of college plagiarism programs, like SafeAssign and Turnitin, which may deter copying and pasting others’ words. As often as possible, seize opportunities to make plagiarism relevant to 21st Century learners’ daily lives.

Be understanding of students’ confusions about plagiarism, and look at the issue from their point of views. We are in a world dependent upon technology, and the lines between what is and isn’t plagiarism are blurred. Wikipedia, for example, was shut down over plagiarism issues; but, it is now up and running, so is the site illegally plagiarizing or not? How about counterfeited merchandise—are these businesses plagiarizing, or not? Then, there’s forwarding of photos and selfies snapped, as well as texts sent by others through social media sites; these are seldom attributed to their original artists, but should they be to avoid plagiarism? Teach academic versus social rules, or formal versus informal uses of technology, along with appropriate audiences for sharing materials. There are many legitimate plagiarism problems for 21st Century learners, whose definitions and ideas of the ambiguous topic differ from those of past generations.

Finally, and most importantly, get to know your students! When students appear before you with essays in hand and say, “But, I didn’t mean to plagiarize…” you can sympathize with their predicaments. Then, it’s time to help confused writers review and better understand plagiarism issues.

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