How To Combat Student Plagiarism

typing in school

Plagiarism, defined as the “wrongful appropriation” of another’s words or ideas, is a pervasive problem in schools. Many teachers and administrators believe that the internet has caused an explosion of academic dishonesty (a recent PEW survey of College Presidents would agree). While, most teachers and administrators are familiar with tools like turnitin that can catch plagiarism after the fact, there are some ways that educators can combat plagiarism before it starts!

In the new digital frontier, we need to hold digital literacy at the forefront when teaching students how to use and incorporate material into their work. Today’s students are used to rapid answers to questions via quick searches (again, verified by PEW in “How Teens Do Research”). While this is not necessarily bad, it does mean that as educators we need to change the way we approach research projects in the classroom so that we can teach students to not only do traditional research, but also to effectively use online media and content. By incorporating these strategies, we can start to combat plagiarism before it begins.

3 Strategies for Combating Plagiarism

Provide students with meaningful lessons and examples of “real world” plagiarism.

Students need to understand why proper citation and documentation is necessary not only in academic research but in “real life.” When you can show them examples from the real world, they understand this concept better as they make a personal connection to it. Here are some great modern, pop culture cases (there are many others) to help frame the discussion:

Not only do these examples highlight plagiarism, but they also spark interesting conversations about why people want credit for their products and ideas.

Make Research Assignments about the process rather than the end product.

As teachers, when we assign a research project, we often focus on the end product: the research essay, presentation, etc. However, students (especially young students) do not automatically know how to conduct meaningful research. Our modern students are used to Googling answers. They have grown accustomed to information being readily available. However, as academics, we know that research isn’t a fast process. It’s slow and deliberate. As a teacher, I need to intentionally slow my students down during this exercise. I do this by breaking down a larger project into more manageable chunks and focusing on the process. Here are some techniques that have worked for me:

  • Give students small practice assignments where they must read, summarize, and properly cite material.
  • Show students what proper citation should look like. Many rely on resources like EasyBib or Bibme to build a bibliography but do not understand what exactly is going into the finished product. Demonstrate to them what should be included in a citation and why. In other words, remove the “but EasyBib said this was right” excuse.
  • Provide students several examples or case studies of material that they must distinguish as: properly summarized and cited, improperly cited, plagiarized, etc. Allow them to identify and explain the problems.
  • During the research process, have students keep a research journal of the work they complete. Ask them to record their sources and write down any thoughts or questions that they brought up.
  • Assign steps throughout the process: a detailed outline, a series of quotations with citations, a bibliography, a summary of their argument, etc.

By focusing on the process and breaking it down into smaller chunks, students will learn to slow down and be more deliberate in research, developing key critical analysis skills.

Require that they use online content!

Instead of banning Wikipedia, blogs, or other online content, encourage or even require that students incorporate these materials into their work. For better or worse, students will use material that they find online. Once students gain the analytical skills to assess the credibility of online sources, there is a treasure trove of information to be incorporated. Embrace the potential to teach students how to harness the internet to conduct powerful research.

  • Teach students to search effectively. In his piece “Why kids can’t search,” Clive Thompson recognized that while, “High School and College Students may be ‘digital natives,’… they’re wretched at searching.” Students need to be taught how to use search engines to find legitimate sources and information.
  • Teach students to evaluate online content of all media types (written, encyclopedic, podcasts, video, etc). There are many tools out there for teaching critical analysis of online content, Cal State Chico’s CRAAP test and Turnitin.com’s SEER rubric are both great places to start. You can even use some popular internet hoaxes like the Pacific Northwest tree octopus (Google it and see what you find!!)
  • Don’t shy away from Wikipedia as a source. The majority of high school and college age students will reference Wikipedia in a research project. Even in academia, the attitude towards Wikipedia is changing. Treat it the same way you would a standard Encyclopedia – it’s a good starting point, but not the end of research. EdTechTeacher has a great Webinar “Wikipedia: Bane or Blessing?” that can guide you here.
  • Focus on transliteracy – how should a student evaluate a Wikipedia article vs. a blog vs. a tweet? Do not hold them to one type of source.

Teaching students to do real, meaningful research not only combats plagiarism, it also makes them better students and critical thinkers. These are the 21st century skills that will serve them throughout life. It will also help to limit those conversations we have all had with a child that turns in work that is not their own. By teaching students how to effectively navigate content of all types, we are promoting academic integrity as well as necessary, real world skills.

To learn more about teaching digital literacy, EdTechTeacher is hosting a series of Summer workshops many of which will specifically address online research and education.

Jen Carey writes for EdTechTeacher, an advertiser on this site.

3 Comments

  1. sarit

    May 19, 2013 at 4:10 am

    Thanks a lot for this, I found it really helpful! I love the attidute of preventing vs. inspecting afterwards, and the idea to divide the assignment into smaller segments that require getting involved in a properly structured process. I would add as an intermediate stage creating headlines or a “concept map” for ideas that would be later detailed. Ideally, even when copy-pasting this would require identifying key concepts and their relation to each other.

  2. Jonathan Bailey

    May 22, 2013 at 11:08 am

    Some great advice in this article, in particular the first piece. No student is born knowing how to site research material. It’s important to teach it and teach it carefully. If you can do that, you’ll prevent a lot of accidental plagiarism.

    One other thing I would encourage teachers to do is craft plagiarism-resistant assignments. You touch on this some, but it’s important to Google the assignments you give and see if there’s a wealth of readily-plagiarized material out there.

    Make students talk about personal experiences, have them turn in rough drafts that are handwritten or require them to give short presentations to the class on the topic. The essay is not the only way a student can show their knowledge of a subject and it’s not the only end product of an assignment. A little creativity in an assignment can make it almost impossible to cheat on.

    Just some additional thoughts. Great article!

  3. Eliyahu

    May 25, 2013 at 6:09 pm

    Students who plagiarize often seem to be lacking in critical thinking skills. How else can we explain one of my wife’s students who turned in a paper which extensively plagiarized my wife’s Master’s thesis? Did she assume my wife wouldn’t recognize her own work?