When it comes to fighting plagiarism, there are a lot of techniques that educators try. This includes everything from stiff penalties for those caught, using plagiarism detection tools and crafting assignments to make plagiarism more difficult.
While these are all useful strategies and can be important to implement, most methods work by making plagiarism more difficult or riskier. While they can all help deter plagiarism, they also don’t necessarily encourage the more desirable alternatives or get to the root cause of it.
As Jason Chu once said, plagiarism is about putting outcomes ahead of processes. When a student, or any creator, values the outcome of a task more than the process of completing it, they may be tempted to take shortcuts.
This can be a very difficult problem in an academic setting. Though we would love for students to show up to every class with full of enthusiasm for the school, the lesson, and the assignment, we know that many won’t. To make matters worse, many students arrive without the skills or confidence they need to complete their work, often making such shortcuts feel like a requirement.
While this creates a serious problem, it also creates a great opportunity. If we can address the reasons students might be tempted to plagiarize, we not only can deter plagiarism but also make them better students all around.
However, this isn’t a simple thing to do, especially since many of the issues are out of the hands of the educators that end up having to deal with them.
The Three Levels of Problems
In general, students who are passionate about what they are doing have the skills to do it well and have confidence in those skills will not be very tempted to plagiarize or take any other shortcuts.
However, there are many ways in which students can lose that passion or confidence. In particular, there are three levels of concern that educators need to worry about.
- School: Students may lack interest or passion in school itself. Likewise, many students may lack, or feel that they lack, the needed skills to do well in school broadly or may not feel that they do.
- Class/Subject: Different classes and subjects have different skills that are required to do well in them. Students may lack those skills or may simply not feel that a subject is important or fun.
- The Assignment: A student who does well with essays may not do well with a presentation or vice versa. Every assignment type and every assignment topic requires different skills and students may lack those.
Appropriately, these three issues also represent something of a hierarchy of importance. For example, a student who is dispassionate about school or lacks basic academic skills may be tempted to take shortcuts in just about any class on any assignment. Likewise, a student with severe issues in a class will likely be tempted by any assignment within it.
This, however, is a great source of frustration for educators as they have precious little to control the larger problems. Instructors can change the assignments they give, but they can do next to nothing to give students a great passion for school or the subject, especially if it’s a required class.
Still, there are things that schools and educators can and should do to decrease these issues and improve academic integrity overall.
Possible Steps to Try
While schools and instructors can’t necessarily control the skills and views with which their students come to class, there are ways they can try to improve both.
- Learning Communities: Though the definition of a learning community is broad, in a school environment it is generally a place where students can work with their peers and professors in a more personal and collaborative environment. They have become common in U.S.-based schools, where many freshmen take two or more linked courses. They have been shown to improve student retention and academic performance.
- Improved Course Selection: Improving course selection can not only help students find classes that fit their needs and interests better, but also improve their grades. According to Stanford University, students who used their course selection tool got an average grade of a B+, as opposed to a B otherwise. This can be bolstered by offering a wider range of classes, giving students more opportunities to find courses they are excited about.
- Student Success Programs: When students find themselves struggling, they need a place that they can turn to. As such, many schools offer student success centers that provide a wide variety of academic support including tutoring, writing help, study skills and other basic tools. These can help improve students’ skills broadly, help give them the confidence they need in their work and can also be combined with data analytics to identify at-risk students earlier.
- Greater Assignment Variety: School, college, in particular, can feel like a grind of constant essays. While essays can be a very valuable tool for educators, trying out different assignments, both written and unwritten, can improve variety. It can be difficult to motivate students to care about their 100th essay, but their first script or their first short story can feel much more exciting.
- More Topic Flexibility: It can be difficult to make students care about a specific topic if they have no interest in it. Instead, giving them some flexibility with the topic can help them find a subject they are interested in and will have greater enthusiasm for. For example, instead of requiring students to compare two works of literature, have them compare one work being studied in class with another of their choosing.
Will these changes ensure that every student has the enthusiasm and confidence to avoid temptation on every assignment? Of course not. However, by empowering students to do well and giving them work they want to do, the temptation to take such shortcuts is reduced.
Best of all, students who are passionate, skilled and confident are simply better students. This enables them to learn more and become more engaged in their education.
When it comes to dealing with academic integrity, there’s a need for a holistic approach. While this will likely include having good honor codes, means of detecting plagiarism and punishments for those who take shortcuts, it needs to also mean reinforcing the values of education.
Focusing solely on punishments and ways to frustrate plagiarism can create a very hostile environment where it can seem like students and instructors are enemies, not partners. Focusing on empowering students and stoking their passions is a much more collaborative effort that pays off in the long run.
There will always be students who look to abuse the system. We can not change that. What we can change is the students who may be swayed and just need the right combination of skills and passion to make it happen.
That’s an opportunity to turn a potential plagiarist into a great student, an idea that should make every educator very happy.
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