Saturday, October 19, 2019

Preventing Plagiarism and Thanking Past-Rachel

This week has been a bit more exciting than expected. It was a shortened week for classes because we had a faculty assessment workday on Tuesday. Though, of course, that didn't mean the week was shortened for actual work for faculty (since we had a full day of meetings and assigned work). Personally, I also had a few surprise tasks added to my list this week and one of those was, unfortunately, a multi-student case (cases) of plagiarism.


Plagiarism monitoring is tough in an online class. On the one hand, almost everything they submit is written and I rarely get to have a live conversation with students. I can't call on them in class and I can't make them write their responses when I'm around. So it is difficult to know if they are working together or getting help with their writing (or borrowing it wholesale from somewhere else).

...and when I go to attribute this meme I realize it came from Pinterest where it is nearly impossible to reliably find sources!

On the other hand, the content is new to them and they naturally must read or watch content from the textbook, videos, my lessons, or other sources before formulating their responses. They must use source information at some level to prepare their answers. Hopefully they read and understand the content some time before taking the quizzes and tests, but that isn't always the case.

Add to this the fact that I usually have lots of students who are relatively new to college and/or to online classes. They don't always know or understand why I am asking for answers "in your own words" and why I don't want them to search for the answers as they go. In fact, I am aware of classes where the tests are open-book and lack a time limit, apparently for the purpose of allowing students to research answers as they progress through the test.

Why they Plagiarize

This week's plagiarism issue in my class covers several overlapping issues: content knowledge, confidence, laziness, writing experience, reading and understanding the directions, time constraints, and probably other issues I haven't considered. Most of the examples of plagiarism happened in tests and quizzes where I clearly direct the students to write answers in their own words. These same students have a paper due next week, so it's possible I will see plagiarism issues there, too. However, I have some scaffolding assignments that are designed to give them practice using source information correctly in formal writing. They also are required to use and cite sources in this paper.

Intentional Academic Dishonesty

In the quizzes and tests, I think I've been fairly clear that quoting or paraphrasing from a source is not allowed. Some of the instances of quiz plagiarism have been where the student copied several sequential sentences from Wikipedia or a similar source and plopped it into the answer field with little regard to whether it actually answers the question. This situation is fairly easy to assess, even if it makes me mad. I get annoyed because, not only have they copied from a source, which I have expressly forbidden, but they haven't even copied something that answers the question! They somehow managed to miss the point twice in one question.

Recognizing Accidental or Unintentional Plagiarism

Another plagiarism issue is a lot more difficult to address. This is the situation where a student has answered the question in just one or two sentences, but something about the phrasing catches my attention and I go looking for the source. Usually when this happens a student has copied a fairly straightforward sentence or has interspersed several distinctive phrases with their own writing. Student also sometimes will copy an entire sentence, but will substitute in synonyms in an attempt to make it their own.

I generally think these students don't intent to plagiarize. In fact, they will often tell me that they didn't. The problem here, assuming I take them at their word, is that intentional or not, they have presented someone else words and phrasing as their own. Do they deserve to be punished, penalized or reprimanded or do they need to be educated?

When I catch this "unintentional plagiarism," it's often because they've either maintained some unusual or distinctive phrasing or the word or phrase they've substituted doesn't quite fit the original sentence. With some regularity, I check their phrasing by copy/pasting their answer into Google. Google generally does the work for me and up pops a source with that same phrasing. Sometimes I check a student's writing and Google gives me nothing, leading me to assume that the unusual phrasing is just an idiosyncrasy of the student's "voice."  Once the quarter is underway, I often get a feel for how the students write and if any of them are likely to be outliers in their word choice or phrasing.

My approach isn't infallible and certainly leaves out students who use sources I can't quickly Google or students who rely on using someone else to write for them. (Is that actually a thing? I hear rumors about it, but I'm not convinced it works for every type of class.)

Addressing Plagiarism

The trouble with the second type of plagiarism, from a grading perspective, is that I tend to assume it is unintentional, so I want my response to focus more on educating the students on why it's a problem and how to avoid it in the future, rather than on catching and reprimanding the students who have done it. I say this education is a problem, simply because it takes more work to address the issue if I think it has resulted from a genuine lack of understanding.

image comes from:

I generally try to explain to students why plagiarism is a problem. They sometimes think that if they didn't "mean it" then it shouldn't be a problem. I try to explain that the reason I have them take quizzes or submit writing is so that they can demonstrate what they understand. If the entire class were assessed based on multiple choice questions, grading would be much easier, but I'd also have much less confidence that students were actually learning the content.

Live vs Online Assessments

In a live class, I generally have fewer formal assessments (quizzes and tests), but that's because in a live class there are lots of informal assessments. In a live class I can call on students, ask students to present information in groups, and ask students to work together or alone to write or draw or illustrate a concept.  I can also ask them to write their answers to a question right then in class. They get a bit of time, then we discuss the question and answers as a group. In this case, I might not grade or collect individual answers, but peer pressure and the classroom atmosphere generally guarantees that everyone does write an answer and everyone does find out the correct answer.

Because the informal assessments are done in class with books closed, students cannot plagiarize. They won't have memorized the phrasing from a source. They won't have read the source seconds before attempting to write an answer. But online students sometimes do just this. They read the question in the quiz, open up another window or tab and ask the internet for help. They can also have their book open (something I discourage but can't prevent in unproctored quizzes), but I encounter instances of book plagiarism much less often than internet plagiarism.

How Unintentional Plagiarism Happens

When the students look for the answer online, they might simply copy/paste the answer from the source. This is the easiest plagiarism to discover since the source is generally not answering the exactly question I've asked. But, if I believe my students (and I generally do), they think they are actually putting the answer into their own words.

The trouble is, I believe, that the students read the source, understand that the source has explained the issue well, and then immediately try to put it in their own words. Unsurprisingly, a student's "own words" sound less authoritative and less correct (to the student) than the words and phrasing used by the source. So they change a few words, but basically use the same language as the source.

I believe that these students may honestly think they are phrasing their answer, but the source's phrasing is still fresh in their minds and it comes out their fingertips onto the keyboard. If the student had read the answer yesterday and understood it then, the content would have stayed in their minds, but the phrasing wouldn't have. Just like we can remember the plot of a movie, but generally don't memorize the lines the first time we see it, the students the next day will have retained the content, but not the language.

Addressing Plagiarism in Class

I try to explain this distinction to students. I also try to make them understand how serious the issue is. Plagiarism means that you are presenting someone else's writing as your own. Whether you do this intentionally or not, you've still done something that is not allowed. The balance between educating them and making it clear that this is not okay is a tricky one to manage, especially because I can't necessarily tell from my office if a student understands the issue and chooses to copy/paste an answer or if a student genuinely doesn't understand what they've done wrong.

This week, because there has been a rash of these plagiarism issues, I have turned the notes and reminders and reprimands to some students into a quiz question for all students. Next week, one of their quizzes will contain a question that asks them to identify the one real paraphrase in a group that contains a legal quote, an illegal unacknowledged quote (copy/paste), and a hybrid of language copied from a source with synonyms and student phrasing mixed in.

I like to utilize the automatic feedback in the quizzes, so this one has lots of explanation that pops up for the correct and incorrect answers. I am hopeful that students will really read it with a mind to understanding the issue. Some students will be seeing this kind of explanation for the second or third or fourth time.

Next Time

This quarter has been unusual in the plagiarism front. I've had more instances of plagiarism this week than I usually have in a whole class. But I can't quite tell if there is something going on or if this is just a coincidence. I am fairly sure (though not positive) that some of the plagiarism is the result of an intent to deceive. I am also fairly sure that some of it is unintentional and those students will benefit from education and feedback.

I teach this class or a similar class every quarter, so I plan to integrate the work I've done this week to create a quiz question, examples, and feedback into the class earlier next quarter. Hopefully this will both benefit the students and prevent this trouble in future classes.

Thanks Past-Rachel

The other tasks I alluded to at the start of this long post have taken me away from my office and my online class this week much more than usual. This week's plagiarism stuff has added to that pull away from normal duties. I anticipated that this year would be like that because I have taken on the Union presidency in addition to my full time teaching duties. Though the plagiarism kerfuffle was not how I anticipated being pulled away, I am very thankful that I planned for this.

I keep thinking of a My Little Pony episode that involved time travel. Spike the dragon was eating too much ice cream and indicated that the tummy ache would be future-Spike's problem. Then eventually Spike is future-Spike and he's not too happy with past-Spike.

Past-Rachel spent the past summer updating ALL the due date for her three online classes and cleaning up the structure of the classes so that most things would function fairly automatically. Knowing I wouldn't have lots of time during the year to update the classes (like I normally do), I chose to tackle the dates and assignment structure as a huge project in the summer.

I am now very thankful, unlike Spike the dragon, that past-Rachel spent her time on this project so that current-Rachel doesn't have to spend her evening and weekends catching up. Maybe future-Rachel will get to eat lots of ice cream.

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