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He who paraphrases best, wins

Posted by phourigan on June 9, 2010

I had an interesting discussion with another teacher yesterday.  A student of hers turned in a paper that was clearly mostly a copy and paste job.  Most of the time we treat this as a learning opportunity and sit down with the student and find out why they thought that was what the teacher was asking for.  Often, the student admits they were running out of time or simply couldn’t be bothered, but sometimes they think they acted correctly and we have to explain why what they gave us wasn’t what we were looking for.

This time though, was this particular student’s second time – he had received The Talk and The Warning on the previous assignment where he did almost exactly the same thing.

Cut and dried, right?  Not so fast . . .

What I usually do when looking for evidence of what we can call Inappropriate Paraphrasing is type suspicious-looking phrases into Google to find the source material.  In the past, this process usually led to Wikipedia or another well-known site.  This time was different.

Typing in the first sentence of the paper lead me to four different sites, all with exactly the same text, and none of them referencing the original source of the material.  One of the sites was the New York Times and another was run by the country in question’s Embassy (it was a History paper).  If I can’t tell which was the original source, how could a student?  How do you cite four sources of the same information?

But my main difficulty with what the student turned in was that what he turned in nearly met the paper’s requirements, even in its borrowed state.  The assignment asked for the student to research factual information, analyze the main message and put it in his own words.  Ten or fifteen years ago this was a daunting task.  The process of conducting the research was just as important as being able to analyze the resulting information.  But that was fifteen years ago.  Now, Google provides access to ALL the information – a process that doesn’t involve any more thought than typing in words that Google can understand.

So the paper becomes an exercise to see who can paraphrase the best.  If we ask for regurgitation and get regurgitation we can’t exactly be surprised.  We then start to grade the students who can paraphrase better or at least make an attempt to conceal the fact that they also copied and pasted their information.

My conversation with the teacher ended up focusing on how we can keep this from happening in the future.  I pointed out that the third section of the student’s paper – the part where the student was supposed to express an opinion – should actually be the entire assignment.  This approach is hard if not impossible to plagiarize, and if done well would show mastery of the material.

It reminded me of an experience I had earlier this year with an 8th grader who was putting a presentation together about Heinrich Himmler for his History class.  This boy is a top student and was working in PowerPoint, trying to find a place to insert his photos into a slide; the problem was that there was so much text on the slide he was having trouble.  I turned off his computer monitor and said, “Tell me about Himmler.”  For the next ten minutes he answered every question I had about the man.  When we finished I asked him, “So why do you even need the PowerPoint?  Why do you need all that text on screen?”

His reply was: “How else is my teacher going to know I know the information?”

“You just proved it to me!” I said.

“But if I do it this way I know I’ll get an A.”  And he was right.  He couldn’t bring himself to trust me and just stand up in front of the class and answer questions because somehow the PowerPoint was proof that he had done the work.

I’m hoping that my CEC class next year will allow me to show students that it’s what’s in their heads that counts and not what they can throw together in a paper or presentation.

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2 Responses to “He who paraphrases best, wins”

  1. I completely agree with your aticle. I am an English teacher as well and spend most of my marking time typing phrases into Google. I try to also find out if the students have actually learned any of the information through discussions or oral presentations. With the advent of technology, many students are “unlearning” communication skills whether it be reading body language, engaging in conversation or even simple spelling. Also, with different learning styles, students should be able to demonstrate the classroom’s expectations through different means.

  2. phourigan said

    I can’t wait until next year in class I can get the students all set up to give presentations . . . and then I turn off the projector (or disable whatever tool they’ve prepared) and have them stand in front of the class and answer questions from their peers. That will certainly show whether or not they’ve learned what I intended for them to learn.

    I agree about the “unlearning” part. I read an article recently that raised the idea that kids no longer know how to disagree with one another. If somebody raises an objection you just unfriend them and that’s it.

    Thanks for the comment!

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