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Making the Tough Call: Skill Deficit or Deliberate Plagiarism?

Patti West-Smith
Patti West-Smith
20-year education veteran; Senior Director of Customer Engagement






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One of the most striking elements of education that new teachers struggle to understand before they have time in the classroom is just how many factors are involved in the art and science of instruction, and even once they have a grasp of that, it can continue to be challenging to understand exactly how to do it WELL. For example, veteran educators understand the findings of Borko and Shavelson (1979) when they concluded that during active teaching, teachers make approximately 42 decisions per hour. Teachers are making those decisions in rapid-fire, with very little time to step back and reflect. While some of those decisions may be pretty simple (IS it okay if Phyllis goes to the bathroom right now?), others are far more complicated and often fundamentally alter how a teacher behaves, which, in turn, directly impacts what happens for a student. In fact, some of those decisions have long term consequences for teachers and students.

One of those consequence-laden decisions can be around issues of academic integrity. Once a problem surfaces, teachers are forced to make very high-stakes decisions about whether students have intentionally violated academic integrity standards or have, instead, gone astray because of deficits in their foundational skills… and then determine the right course of action either way.

Teachers Don’t Want To Assume Bad Intentions

A veteran English teacher in Maryland helped to explain how she approached these questions, saying that she always began with the assumption that the problem stemmed from a weakness in skills, rather than intentional wrongdoing. “I always started by assuming they didn’t know how to do it well, and those underlying issues led them to a problem,” she said. “Perhaps they struggle with effectively paraphrasing or maybe issues with reading comprehension led them to use more of an author’s ideas than their own.” For this teacher, like so many, this approach gave her room to intervene, identify exactly what went wrong, determine the right instruction needed to correct the problem, and then provide an opportunity to improve. Situations like those she outlined are perfect for teachers to use their knowledge and skills in the best possible way.

What If It Isn’t a Skill Deficit?

What becomes more complicated, however, are situations where students have intentionally compromised the principles of academic integrity. Here, too, instructors are challenged! When a student engages in misconduct, the consequences can be severe - everything from a failing assignment to failing a course and even disciplinary action, like expulsion from an institution, and the severity of those consequences push teachers to a place where they want to be absolutely sure before they head down that path. The problem, of course, is that it is hard to be absolutely sure. There are, though, tell-tale signs that clearly signal intent, and intent is the key issue when deciding whether to intervene instructionally or follow a disciplinary path. In all the years that Turnitin has been focused on integrity, we have amassed many examples of these intentional efforts and heard the pleas of teachers for the scenarios where they want to know that students have made intentional efforts to “cheat the system.”

Some of the clear signs:

  • Contract Cheating - Obviously, if a student pays someone else, that is a clear sign of an intentional effort to engage in academic misconduct. That doesn’t happen accidentally.
  • 100% copying and pasting - When students literally lift the whole of the work from another source, that is intentional misconduct. While it’s possible that students may not understand that pulling small portions of someone else’s work without proper attribution is not acceptable, pulling down all of someone else’s work and putting one’s own name on it is clearly intentional.
  • Text manipulation - When students use covert actions to try to cover their misconduct, it is a clear indication of intent. Again, this doesn’t happen accidentally. More about this below.

While there are strategies that teachers can use to gain better insight about students’ intentions, such as asking students to explain their own work, describing their process for completing the work, and even using a short, targeted assessment to uncover a skills deficit, these are sometimes inconclusive and are almost always time-consuming. This uncertainty and the chronic lack of time teachers experience complicate an already challenging situation, which leaves instructors looking for tools that can help.

Turnitin products and services have historically answered the call for the first two instances, and in 2020, we are proud to have added functionality that will uncover explicit text manipulation with the Flags Panel. For years, instructors have been asking us to use our technology to help identify specific efforts to deceive the Turnitin similarity checking engine. The Flags Panel, alongside our other Insight Panels, surface insights not immediately visible in the document. With the new Flags Panel, many of the most common behaviors students have used in efforts to trick the system will be highlighted to help educators better assess intentionality versus a skill-based deficit.

What Can the Flags Panels Detect?

One common behavior that instructors identified as a problem is the use of hidden characters, where students use white-on-white text that effectively “hides” text or symbols from instructors. By uncovering this text for instructors, they can gain insight into what, exactly, the student was attempting to hide, which can often help instructors understand exactly what the student intended. For example, students may use white on white text to inflate the word count of a text in order to reduce the overall Similarity Score below a given threshold.

Another discreet text modification that students have been known to use in an effort to evade similarity checking is character replacement, substituting a similar character from another alphabet. By using character replacement, students attempt to make their copied text slightly different from the original - different enough that they hope it will circumvent the system. One example of character replacement attempts to fool the system is when students replace a’s or e’s with their Cyrillic equivalents.

In both these instances, instructors can see a clear pattern of intent, and that intent is what drives decision making about how to approach these delicate situations. There are few--if any--dedicated instructors who find any joy in situations involving questions of academic integrity. In fact, most educators question themselves along the way.

With these added features, Turnitin helps to reveal specific behaviors in a way that eliminates the guesswork for teachers so that they can at least feel confident in the question of whether a student’s behavior was intentional or not.

For the most part, we will continue to assume that where things go wrong, instruction can solve the problem, but in the instances where intentional misconduct is occurring, now teachers will have objective evidence upon which to base their decisions.

Shavelson, R., & Borko, H. (1979). Research on teachers’ decisions in planning instruction. Educational Horizons, 57(4), 183-189

The landscape of academic integrity continues to change with every passing year. Comparing text similarity, while a great way to identify copy/paste plagiarism or student collusion, doesn’t help with fast-growing trends.

Join Turnitin Chief Product Officer, Valerie Schreiner, in a webinar to discuss the changing landscape and our newest solution, Turnitin Originality, which is designed to help students, instructors, and administrators keep integrity at the core of the work they do.

Webinar Topic: Incorporating Integrity into Instructional Workflows: New Solutions for New Challenges

When: Wednesday 5 August 2020 8:00 — 9:00 am PT