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Plagiarism-proof assignments: walking the walk

Posted by phourigan on June 15, 2010

A wise man once told me, “Never complain unless you have an alternate solution”.  In light of my previous post on paraphrasing, I thought I should expound further on what I think we can do about plagiarism:

  • Be honest with yourself.  Ask “What’s the point of this assignment?  What should a student remember about this experience twenty years from now?”  If you can’t answer that question, and you’d be surprised at how hard it is sometimes to find an answer, you should recognize that the assignment is busywork.  Kids are smart; they can recognize filler assignments and will adjust their efforts accordingly.  When I’m reading a suspect paper, I can usually tell the exact moment when the student lost interest and began copying and pasting – it’s usually right at the point where I begin losing interest in reading it.
  • Understand that almost all factual knowledge is available on the internet.  Research, as you and I learned it as students, is dead.  Twenty years ago we were like Gandalf riding his horse to Minas Tirith, poring over ancient texts in an effort to find the answer to our essential question.  Today, we type “One Ring to rule them all” into Google and get 1,940,000 search results in .31 seconds.  I’m sure Gandalf learned a lot in the course of his research and the experience was quite rewarding in itself, but today’s student is overwhelmed by the sheer volume and rapid accessibility of information.  With all of that information available and the ability to scan through dozens of sources in minutes, students will inevitably find what they’re looking for, stated in a much better way than they could phrase it themselves.  How do you paraphrase factual information that’s already expressed in a clear and concise way?  If all we’re asking for is regurgitation, we can’t possibly be surprised when we get it.
  • Students must be taught how to interpret what they’ve found and form their own opinion.  If you’re not asking for their opinion, you’re asking them to regurgitate.  If you don’t think they’re informed enough to offer an opinion, what are you waiting for?  This is what school should be all about – asking students to think.  Expressing their opinion is the one thing students can do better than an expert.  A student who forms an opinion and can back it up is a student who has learned the material.
  • If you’re concerned that students might find a paper online and use it, make that part of the assignment.  Have them find two papers or sources and write their own paper about which one is better and why.  Better yet, have them read two papers from a previous year’s class and write their own paper comparing the two, finishing the assignment by giving each paper a grade.
  • Set checkpoints.  In my experience, students usually plagiarize when they procrastinate and realize at the eleventh hour that they can’t possibly put the appropriate time and effort in to making their research their own.
  • For assignments that still require factual research, have the students turn in a copy of their source material.
  • If you think I’m crazy and none of this will work and you’re intent on serving up the same research assignments you’ve always used, there’s still hope: if your school has plagiarism-detection software (TurnItIn.com, for example), use it as a pre-writing tool instead of a Gotcha.  Students can submit a draft, identify pieces that they didn’t paraphrase well enough, rewrite the paper and submit.  Just understand that your assignment is no longer a research paper – it’s a paraphrasing exercise.

I’ll admit it – I loved writing research papers.  But for me, part of the fun was the detective work involved in finding the perfect source material and it was usually the result of a long and complicated process which made it that much more of a reward.  I can’t believe that today I would be disciplined enough to go through the same process when the internet makes much of the same data readily available.  I certainly can’t expect my students to be any different.

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