It’s not cheating unless you get caught, right?

Image via Adventist

I remember two things about my high school AP U.S. History teacher: his emotional breakdown (and subsequent screaming) in our class a few weeks before the AP exam, and his story on plagiarism.  The latter went something like this:   “When I was in college, my roommate had not read an assigned book.  When it came time to do his essay, he copied passages verbatim from CliffNotes and turned it in.  What he failed to realize was that the author of that particular CliffNotes was his professor.”  *Gasps and giggles filled the room.*   “He not only got kicked out of UC Davis, but out of the entire UC system.”  *Stone-faced silence replaced the previously cheerful mood.*

I have never forgotten that story, and recite it religiously at the beginning of the school year to my students.

Imagine my chagrin, then, when I graded a major writing assignment last week, and realized that seven out of one hundred papers looked eerily similar…two were even identical.

So what gives?

In her New York Times article “Digging Out Roots of Cheating in High School,” Maura J. Casey  writes that a “…national survey of 25,000 high school students from 2001 to 2008 yielded…depressing results: more than 90 percent said they had cheated in one way or another.”  Casey focuses her article on the work of Dr. Jason Stephens of the University of Connecticut, whose “…premise is that honesty and integrity are not only values but habits — habits that can be encouraged in school settings, with positive benefits later in life.”  Interestingly, Casey argues that “…schools themselves are complicit, because they reward high grades more than the process of learning — while too often turning a blind eye to the cheating.”

One solution that many high schools are banking on is the subscription-based website TurnItIn.  Teachers require their students to turn in their essays to this website, and this website checks the students’ work against other writing on the internet.  The hope is that students will not plagiarize for fear of being caught by TurnItIn, or that if they still attempt to plagiarize, they will be caught.

However, in Audrey Watters’s blog post “How to Combat Plagiarism” on the educational website Edutopia, Watters cites the work of Professor David Harrington of Kenyon College, in which he found that “if nothing else…Turnitin.com may only be gauging a small portion of students’ online activities.  After all the service seems to track only a portion of the resources from which a student might opt to lift passages.  If content is behind a paywall, Harrington contends — such as in the case of The New York Times or Google Books — then Turnitin.com’s search might not uncover it.”  Additionally, TurnItIn has come under attack by students who claim that their intellectual property is being violated, and feel as if there is an automatic assumption of culpability.

If TurnItIn is not the panacea that we had all hoped for, then what is the solution to student cheating?

Step One must include giving students (and parents!) a clear definition of what plagiarism is.  Penn State’s website on “Defining Plagiarism and Academic Integrity” has a clear and concise list of what constitutes plagiarism.  The Council of Program Writing Administrators has a lengthier, more thorough document on “Defining and Avoiding Plagiarism.”

Step Two is to practice this skill with our students — isn’t that, after all, how we teach them any skill?  One of my all-time favorite sources, The Purdue Online Writing Lab (aka The OWL at Purdue) has a practice assignment that demonstrates how and when to use citations.

Step Three revisits Dr. Stephens’s theory that teaching academic integrity will curtail plagiarism.  The University of Missouri’s webpage on academic integrity includes fifty (!) activities to teach students about this topic.  Even though these activities were written for university students, they can be easily applied to the high school level.  As many of these activities are discussions, they are easy to incorporate into any curriculum.

While these three steps will certainly not stop plagiarism forevermore (some students, after all, consciously cheat), they should help.  Out of the seven papers that were plagiarized two weeks ago in my class, at least two of those papers would probably have not been issues if I had followed the steps outlined above.

(Interestingly, more articles are written about college cheating than high school cheating.  See the links below for more information.)

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