I do not enjoy being the plagiarism police with my middle-school students. For me, detecting plagiarism and determining consequences take more energy than proactively planning assignments that don’t lend themselves to copying.
Here are some steps I take — and recommend trying — to prevent plagiarism before it begins. These may not make the assignment plagiarism proof, but they will certainly make it more difficult to plagiarize.
- Discuss the idea of plagiarism on a personal level. Have a conversation about how annoying it is when someone copies them on a superficial level such as hairstyle, clothing, catchphrases, etc. Then, take it to a deeper level and discuss how they would feel if someone stole the product of their hard labor. Perhaps even share some current plagiarism scandals in the news.
- Explicitly teach the skills of paraphrasing and summarizing. It is not enough to tell students to “put it in your own words” or “don’t copy” because many don’t know what else to do. It doesn’t have to be boring. For example, they enjoy when I challenge them to take a couple of paragraphs of text and summarize them in exactly 12 words.
- Incorporate some form of collaboration, discussion and feedback into the project. Also, add the element of publicly sharing their work in on online format. These steps encourage students to produce original work due to the social pressure of their work being read by more than just the teacher.
- Add a personal reflection component, either within the assignment itself, or thinking back on the process of completing the work.
- Connect the assignment to something you have specifically done in class. Incorporate a news article they read, a video clip you showed or a class discussion into the final product.
- Break the assignment into chunks and have required check-ins. Some students copy because they waited until the last minute and are rushing.
- Conference with the student throughout the process. This will allow you to determine to what extent they are understanding their topic. For instance, you could ask them what surprised them most from their research thus far. In addition, some part of the assignment should be completed in class with teacher supervision.
- Designate one specific source they must use — ideally a current one.
- Add a piece that cannot be copied. For example, students could interview an expert or design an oral presentation.
- Most importantly, design assignments utilizing higher-order thinking skills and creativity. When students are required to explain, problem solve, evaluate, hypothesize or compare, it is nearly impossible for them to find this kind of assignment online from which to borrow. To illustrate: rather than writing a biography of a president (a sure recipe for plagiarism), have them write a mock letter to the post office or the White House persuading officials to designate a new stamp or holiday to be held in that president’s honor due to his many accomplishments.
Cheryl Mizerny is a recent Editor’s Choice Content Award winner. She is a veteran educator with over 20 years experience. She began her career in special education, became a teacher consultant and adjunct professor of educational psychology, and currently teaches sixth-grade English in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. She writes a blog about student motivation and engagement at The Accidental English Teacher.
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