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What do you do when your student plagiarizes a minor assignment?

Should you make a big deal so they learn a lesson? Sometimes it's more complex.

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by Norman Eng in Blog
February 23, 2017 17 comments

My heart skipped a beat. Could it be?

The paper sounded …familiar.

Just like the words a former student wrote. I remember, because they were so eloquently written, so descriptive, so specific.*

What do you do?

I knew what I should do. The university policy on academic integrity is clear: Talk to the student first. If there is enough to conclude the student was academically dishonest and that this incident would affect his/her final course grade, the instructor would fill out a report. Here an academic integrity officer, appointed by the college, would investigate and determine if academic and disciplinary sanctions are warranted.

But because this “reading response” was ungraded—I used checkmarks to indicate completion—it would not affect the final course grade.

I thought, by not assigning a numbered grade, students would engage more authentically with the text and discouraged plagiarism. Ironic.

If this was a test or a finals paper, I would have filled out a report and involved the academic integrity officer.

But this was a minor assignment. Is it worth going nuts over?

I started thinking about this particular student. He seemed earnest and genial—participating in class, asking me questions individually before and after class—in sum, a typical decent student. Someone opposite of what I imagined a plagiarizer would look like: a disinterested, struggling individual. Of course, I knew better. Yet it still shocked me that a “good” student would do such a thing.

I thought about my population. It was diverse—a good mix of Latino(a), white, Black, and Asian students. Typically, they come from working class families. Many of them worked part-time, took care of siblings, commuted to school, and took five courses per semester to qualify for financial aid. Some have kids.

Is it possible this student was just overwhelmed and took the easy route? But why then would he plagiarize an assignment that wasn’t even a big deal?

Time to ask the class, I thought.

In the K-12 classroom, teachers do this all the time. When patterns of behavior occur, such as bullying or tattling, the best teachers call for “community meetings.” Here, the class discuss questions such as:

Have you noticed such incidents?

What do you all think?

What are some solutions?

I decided to pose the last two questions to a different class—not the one with the suspected plagiarizer. My bigger priority was to help him.

Students were simultaneously sympathetic and harsh. “He needs to know early on that copying is not acceptable. What if he thinks he can get away and continues to plagiarize?” asked one.

“Yeah, but why did he think he had to plagiarize? Shouldn’t we find out why?” asked others.

“For me,” I added, “the bigger issue is trust. If I suspect a student has plagiarized, I’m going to scrutinize every single piece of his or her work the rest of the term. Is it worth it? Is that what he or she wants?”

“And do students think long-term about their relationship with the professor? You jeopardize any future consideration for recommendations—whether for graduate school, scholarships, or jobs.”

One student said, “Wow, I hadn’t thought of that.” Others nodded in agreement.

The benefits of “community meetings” are obvious. They build trust. In fact, students appeared shocked any professor would consult them on an issue like this.

Bringing up this incident also served as a cautionary tale. If any had thoughts of plagiarism before, I’m sure they vanished after today. I hope.

I probably could have avoided this whole incident, however. Time to assign new articles next term. Also, I won’t give short shrift to the academic integrity policy like I usually do on the first day of class. This incident will be my new cautionary tale.

So what did I do with the suspected plagiarizer?

When I handed the assignment back to the student next class, I pointed to the paragraph and quietly said, “This sounds very familiar. Where did you get this from?” He stayed silent.

I walked away.

What would you have done?

*To protect identity, I’m not using any names or referencing the paragraph in question.

17 Comments
  1. SM says:

    I agree it’s a bit harder to figure out what to do with a minor assignment. With a test, you definitely have to involve the integrity officer, but with a reflection piece? I would definitely spend some time talking with the student, not just point it out to them. Did you ever follow up with him? Curious to know.

    1. Norman Eng says:

      No I didn’t. I might next time, but I think I put a scare into this student. Hopefully it’s enough.

  2. Laurie Sandall says:

    I have found that sometimes students are not confident of their own writing voice, which is ironic since that is the giveaway clue of plagiarism. I try to work with students to improve their confidence in expressing their opinions, starting with a re-write of the offending submission and continual feedback and strategies for improvement throughout the rest of the course. If our goal is to be compassionate educators, we have to accept that some relationships carry the responsibility for more guidance with some students than with others. Hopefully this effort will make the temptation of plagiarism unlikely in the student’s future academic career.

    1. Norman Eng says:

      Laurie, I agree–I think it’s too easy and (at times) irresponsible to simply “drop the hammer” on them. Reporting that plagiarism can be devastating and only something I would do and and when I have to. Otherwise, I’d much rather work with them. I hadn’t thought of the idea of lack of confidence. Will keep that in mind for the future. Thanks for bringing that up.

  3. D P says:

    Norman, You raise a great point about plagiarism. With major assignments, the actions that professors need to take is clear (although I still speak with the student to determine if the plagiarism was intentional or unintentional—forgetting to cite sources). With daily assignments (response journals, homework, etc.), the decision to fill out the college’s academic honesty violation paperwork is more difficult to make. I, too, have a conversation with the student to see what caused the plagiarism. Many times my developmental students are overwhelmed and/or do not clearly understand the consequences of plagiarism. I like to remind them that if they continue to plagiarize that it will become a habit for them. They might not get caught the first time, but they will get caught eventually. And when they do get caught, they might be in a position where the consequences and notoriety become public knowledge (ex. Melania Trump’s speechwriter). I talk about plagiarism all through my freshmen writing courses to impress upon students the seriousness of this topic.

    1. Norman Eng says:

      Your point about students not clearly understanding the consequences of plagiarism is right on. I have to remember that. Cognitive development research supports the idea that the rational part of teenagers’ brains don’t fully develop until aged 25. They may not even think what they’re doing is plagiarism. Keeping that in mind, I will move forward with the constant reminders on this. Love the Melania Trump example!

  4. John says:

    i had a mother-son in my class where i had them do a take home and send to me – they were both about identically written, and only the son was there last session and I told him either I will look up which one was submitted to me 1st and I give that one credit and the other one a zero, OR one of them resubmit it to me or I count the 2nd one as 0 (I KNEW he wasn’t gonna admit it was his mother whom he allowed to copy – but if no changes made, would count the later one as a 0, which is his mom’s (They take the class as pass/fail bec they are more or less auditing my class but for a pass/fail grade (The Continuing Ed program is not really a part of the same school, but rather a peripheral school but the school allows them in)

    1. Norman Eng says:

      Wow, John, I can’t believe the mother-son combo were so bold. Did they ever finish the course together?

  5. Carol King says:

    I would have followed up with a private meeting and had on hand a copy of the original paragraph (if available- I scan all student work and just keep it on file. If necessary I can call up the work and temporarily remove the original author name). Then the student and I would have a quiet chat where I brought up the points the other students had made about how this kind of behavior can come back to the perpetrator and bite him or her very very hard.

    I’d also have on hand the college or university policy on plagiarism and ask the student how his or her work demonstrates the policy. I’d try to find out why the student felt compelled to act duplicitously and point out that if he or she has done this in my class I would have to wonder if it had been done in other classes as well. Other teachers might not be as willing to talk but rather just act.

    I’d make him or her redo the work because even if the task had no point value it had academic and integrity value. I would make sure that the student knew that I would be reading any future work with a very critical eye because my expectation of mutual respect had been bruised by the student’s actions.

    And I’d ask two questions: How can you show me this will never happen again? and Is this something your other teachers have to know about? I would end by suggesting the student speak with me if he or she needed extra help or time for future assignments, and I would volunteer to pre-read draft work for longer pieces if the student wanted to be sure he or she hadn’t inadvertently used another’s words.

    In a large Canadian, the chair of the largest school board in Canada was removed from the position and from all the educational institutions and foundations he was associated with because it was discovered that he had plagiarized numerous pieces of writing, including articles, newspaper op-eds, sections of speeches delivered to the public, and parts of his PhD thesis. He had been a highly respected educator. He is now awaiting word on whether or not the provincial College of Teachers is going to rescind his teaching diploma. He’s already had his PhD cancelled. By all accounts he was an excellent teacher- interesting and innovative classes, caring for the students, passionate about the state of education. And now, because of multiple instances of poor academic judgment, his career and his reputation are irreparably destroyed. Because, I’ll bet, it started small maybe with a little no-mark reading response and he got away with it.

    There’s an interesting novel about academic integrity (amongst other things) written by the English writer and theologian Dorothy L. Sayers in 1935. It’s called Gaudy Night. Yes it’s somewhat dated but it addresses well, I think, the issue of whether truth really matters when it might not seem to make any difference in the ‘real’ world. (And it’s not even remotely ‘preachy’.). Worth a look perhaps.

  6. D P says:

    Your example of the Canadian educator underscores what I wrote in my post above. Plagiarizing and cheating become a habit when they go “unpunished” or go ignored by college faculty. After a while, the perpetrator doesn’t even recognize the plagiarizing actions any more. Then the plagiarizer acquires a job position which is highly visible and important. He/she plagiarizes again and then is finally caught. That’s when the consequences go beyond a zero on a class assignment.

  7. Norman Eng says:

    Carol, thanks for your thoughtful comment. I agree, especially about letting the student know that you will be reviewing his/her future work with a critical eye, something I did do with the student in question. I guess finding the right balance between waking them up and giving them a chance to change is critical.

  8. Terri says:

    I have seen very limited cases of plagiarism in student papers, where they clearly cut and paste something from the web. By clearly, I could see the “voice” changed dramatically. At my university, plagiarism is an automatic F on the assignment. I usually conduct a writing “mini-lecture” early on in the semester and include info and consequences about plagiarism. Many students don’t completely know what it is!!

    1. Norman Eng says:

      Your idea of a “mini-lecture” makes all the sense in the world, Terri. And you’re absolutely right that many students don’t completely know what plagiarism is.

    2. Carol King says:

      At my university when I was starting my Masters my college had a compulsory workshop which covered research and writing techniques including how to take and use notes so you could avoid plagiarism. It was extremely helpful. I still use what I learned.

      1. Norman Eng says:

        Carol, I think all universities and depts need to have a compulsory workshop–I don’t think many professors, particularly adjuncts floating from campus to campus, are thinking so much about plagiarism and its effects.

  9. Carol King says:

    I just wanted to post an update on my comment about the Canadian educator who was found guilty of plagiarism. There was an article in today’s paper about this case. His teaching license has been revoked and he is very upset about the decision saying that he has publicly apologized and that should be enough punishment given his lost reputation. His PhD is under consideration by the university which granted it – they’ve not yet made a decision regarding revocation.

    The gentleman in question is currently living and working in the States but the article I read (in a trustworthy newspaper) did not say what his work entailed but noted he cannot work as an educator in any publicly funded school in Canada.

    The college found 14 separate, distinct and identifiable instances of published plagiarism. Several people are organizing an appeal against the college decision on the grounds that he was considered a good teacher and no weight to that aspect of his work seems to have been given. Many people don’t understand why plagiarism is considered such an important issue. People inside academia get it but many people I’ve talked with who are not feel that the fact he’s admitted his mistakes and feels sorry about them should be enough.

    It’s a complex issue- this whole business of right and wrong, punishment and reformation, forgiveness and justice. He has lost an enormous amount because of his poor decisions, not just his work but in many ways, the parts of himself which he can feel good about. Universities expel students who egregiously plagiarize. Do we ever consider what happens to them afterwards? How do our actions help them become better students and people? As educators can we find ways to help the whole student? It’s something I think about a lot, perhaps because my PhD focus is in theology (where we also have our share of plagiarizers make no mistake!).

    1. Norman Eng says:

      Thanks Carol for the update. It’s really opened my eyes in terms of what we as professors can do to prevent this from happening and stopping plagiarism before it snowballs and destroys someone’s professional reputation. I certainly know how much of a big deal to make this going into the next term: use examples of plagiarized work (both explicit and subtle) and then having a class discussion, including the not-so-obvious repercussions.

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