Why Finding Plagiarism Terrifies Me

The following situation may, sadly, be familiar to many of us in the teaching profession:
You are reading a student’s paper, let’s say a ninth grader. It’s fine, but suddenly you come across a sentence which causes you a double take.  It’s a great sentence with sophisticated vocabulary and a solid point.  In fact, it’s apparent that you would have trouble putting such a fine sentence together yourself.  The sentence doesn’t sound right: it’s in a different voice from the rest of the paper.
You might Google a choice phrase, but you already know: it’s been plagiarized.  What’s more, as you read on, you find four other similar plagiarized sentences in the paper, and not only that, you have given this student a warning about the same thing just three weeks ago.

When this happens, my stomach sinks: there is a major conflict between my head and my heart as I consider five of the constituencies who could be involved:

  1. The student: No matter how frustrated I am with the student for the amount of time we have spent discussing what plagiarism is, why he shouldn’t do it, and the correct use of “air bunnies”, I still don’t want him to be punished.  Big picture, I am supposed to be helping him, and how will I be helping him if he gets suspended or it goes on his personal record? I want the best for him: he’s a good kid.
  2. The parents: Whether it might be that they haven’t had to write an academic paper in years, whether it wasn’t part of their schooling, whether it was just much more difficult to cut and paste in their day, or whether their instinct is to defend their child, many parents find it difficult to understand or accept the seriousness of plagiarism. It can be an uphill battle to explain to parents that their child has actually done something wrong, unethical even, and that there may be serious consequences.
  3. The administration: In some schools, there are fairly draconian statutes on the books for plagiarism: failing a course, suspension, or even expulsion. And, of course, no one has actually been hurt here.  And there are so many reasons why holding a student accountable for plagiarism is unpalatable: it could cause negative relationships with parents or even bad publicity, it could affect the student’s college acceptance hopes, and it could even affect the school’s enrollment numbers.
  4. My colleagues: What if they think I am incompetent for not educating my students about plagiarism, or for assigning them work that encourages plagiarism?  What if they think I am vindictive for making an issue of this?
  5. Myself: Following through with the process for plagiarism is going to be a huge pain.  The little angel and the little devil are on my shoulders: the angel telling me its the right thing to do, the devil telling me just to speak to the student about it and give him another warning in the hope that he will change.  Is it really going to be worth it?  The weight of all five constituencies weigh heavily upon me.


At the end of the day, we know we should address plagiarism.  There really are no winners here – it is an unfortunate situation all round.  However, this kind of plagiarism is happening all the time at the college level: as middle and high school teachers, the onus is on us to prepare for this high stakes environment.  There is also an issue of justice and fairness – is it ever right to sweep it under the carpet?   We should do all we can to get ahead of the problem, speak to our students about it on a regular basis, give them assignments which make it difficult to copy and paste, and interest them in fair use.  More about this in the next post.

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Nine Tips for Helping Students Reach Their Potential

Robbie groaned audibly when I explained the poem explication project to the class.

“I don’t get poetry,” he said.  “It’s too hard.”

Robbie is in my ‘regular’ tenth grade English section which is comprised of students who have not placed into the honors class.  Some of the students think they are not “good at” English, and this sometimes means they don’t try as hard as they might.  Robbie himself, though he is a personable and conscientious young man, has some difficulties with spelling, grammar, and punctuation.

So, today in class, when Robbie gave a presentation on his poem, I was shocked: it was a great presentation!
What happened?  How did he go from being a disheartened student to a proud student?  While much of the credit must go to Robbie, this kind of transformation can be facilitated by teachers in the intentional planning of such projects.  Below, then, are nine tips for helping students reach their potential:

  • Explain the why of the assignment – How is this project helpful to the students?  How does it fit into the overall objectives of the course?  In this example, some students had preconceived notions about poetry, so I used class time to discuss why poets compose poems and the benefits of reading poetry.
  • Provide templates – Students shouldn’t get hung up on menial issues at the expense of developing higher-order analytical skills.  Where appropriate, do some of the grunt work for them: often is it easier to provide a simple template than for each of them to make their own.  (Do they need to invent the wheel when you are asking them to discover fire!?)
  • Model –  This project required the students to make a webpage where they would explicate their poem and then present the webpage to the class.  In this case, I did exactly this: I chose one of my favorite poems (Digging, by Seamus Heaney), made a webpage explicating the poem, and then presented the page to the class. (Click on this link to see the model explication: http://goo.gl/UYlHy).
  • Provide a student benchmark – This was one of the more difficult assignments, and I wanted to provide a benchmark in addition to my model.  So, I engineered it so one of the strongest students presented first.  He gave a great presentation, and his classmates had a standard by which to measure their presentations.
  • Differentiate – Though it is important that all students are held to the same standard, there’s no reason why they have to complete identical projects.  In this case, some poems were more accessible than others, and I was conscious of this as I gave the students individual help, and this was also taken into consideration in their final evaluations.
  • Provide an element of choice –  Students are more invested in a project when they feel some sense of ownership.  In some cases, they can choose the topic/subject of their presentation with only minimal teacher guidance.  On other occasions, it is appropriate for them to choose from a limited number of choices selected by the teacher.  For this project, I wanted the students to work on poems that were both accessible, but also rich in figurative language, imagery, and other poetic techniques: we held a lottery, and the students chose their poems from a list I provided.
  • Provide extrinsic motivation for the project –  Students are motivated when they have a ‘real-world’ audience, when they are making something tangible (a webpage), and when they are collaborating with others.  At a minimum, presentations provide motivation for students to work at least hard enough to avoid embarrassment!
  • Provide plenty of class time for individual help and make yourself available for further help –  Students need the opportunity to ask questions without feeling embarrassed.  They need the opportunity to discuss the problems they are having and receive guidance about how to address challenges.  In particular, where they are working on different content, they need the opportunity to discuss their individual work.
  • Communicate the criteria for evaluation as clearly as possible –   Make explanations as clear as possible: what exactly are you looking for?  Use a rubric!

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Of course, not all students will rise to the occasion and perform as Robbie did, but by providing these resources and opportunities for our students, they have plenty of support in reaching their potential.

© David Doherty, 11/28/12

Engaging the Audience During Student Presentations

When students have an audience for their work, there are three way in which they are motivated to work harder than if the sole audience member is the teacher:

  • They want to represent themselves well;
  • They are often excited about sharing their ideas and creativity with others;
  • At a minimum, they don’t want to embarrass themselves.

A cornerstone of Project-Based Learning is providing students with opportunities to share their work with an audience through presentations, videos, and various forms of online content.  Furthermore, when students, for example, create webpages and present them to the rest of the class provides, there is a double whammy in terms of audience: there is the immediate audience of their classmates, and the much wider audience of the population of the internet.

However, during these in-class presentations, what about the students who are the audience members? What is to keep them involved and engaged other than their varying levels of intrinsic interest?

One solution for this is content-retrieval activities.  Just as a teacher might provide a scavenger hunt during a museum field trip, the students giving the presentation can create worksheets or quizzes (paperless of course) for other students to complete during the presentation.  As an added incentive to the presenting students, they can even try to “stump the chump” by including the teacher in their quizzes.

Not only do student-created quizzes make the presenters think about the content of their presentations, but is also an opporuntity to learn about asking good questions (for example, why it is better to ask ‘open’ vs. ‘closed’ questions.)

Yesterday, during class, two students presented webpages they had created where they explicated poems (click here for the link to one presentation.)  One student created a Google Form to deliver his ten-question quiz on the content of his presentation.  This was a very neat way for students to access the questions and for him to collect their answers.  (The students will grade the quizzes they give, report the scores to me, and I will average the quiz grades in my grade book – the incentive of a grade can help with motivation as long as it is not over-emphasized.)

The other student, however, shared his quiz as a Google Doc on to which all the students and myself typed directly (we identified our answers with our initials.)  As I typed, it was exhilarating again to see the document populating with twelve of us all adding content at the same time.  However, as I typed my answers, it occurred to me as I took this quiz (though the grade stakes were very low), that all the students could see my answers as well as each others.  Wan’t this an opportunity for cheating?  However, it occurred to me that the point of this activity was not for the students to memorize content from the presentation, but for them to listen carefully, digest the explanations, and make sense of the poem for themselves.  There was the opportunity for the ‘cross pollination’ of ideas here as the students typed, and by being able to see each others’ answers, their understanding is heightened (as long as there is no blatant copying).

The screenshot below shows part of this quiz with the students’ answers.  Note that there is a simple ‘open-ended’ question here followed by a ‘closed’ question.  Although the closed question required the students to ay attention to this content, the answer in itself does not require an explanation and so it provides an opportunity for a discussion about writing questions.