About eight years ago, I stopped giving out-of-class writing assignments and, instead, decided to have all major papers written in class. I told my students this was because I wanted to prepare them for the high-stakes timed essays of the AP, EAP, and SAT exams. This, however, was only a half-truth. My larger motivation was that I’d grown weary of the stress and lost prep periods dealing with case-after-case of plagiarism.
Anyone who’s been teaching longer than a minute knows the gut churn of I know this kid didn’t write this line/paragraph/paper. Suddenly, my role as educator would shift to investigator, scouring the web to find the true author of a questionable passage. Usually, the evidence was ridiculously obvious; other times, it was harder to find, leaving me to conclude that an overly involved parent or writing tutor must’ve crossed the line between “helping” and “doing.” Either way, the damage from these plagiarism cases was severe – not only to the student’s grade, but also to our relationship.
Fighting those plagiarism battles was exhausting, so one year I just stopped. I altered most essay assignments to fit within an hour and, when a task would take more than one class period, I built homemade essay packets that I collected at the end of each period and returned at the beginning of the next day’s class. (Actually, my T.A.s built the essay booklets, four pages of binder paper with a special stamp in the corner of each sheet to prevent students from slipping pre-written pages into the essay stack. Yeah, my kids can be relentless. More evidence of this? I once found a sticky note tucked inside a novel with an entire intro. paragraph printed on it in 2 pt. font; the kid had forgotten that I keep a record of book checkout numbers. Oopsies.)
Those little essay booklets worked and it’s been years since I’ve had to make a crunchy phone call home to an embarrassed (or, worse, defensive) parent. Over time, I’ve even added back the occasional take-home assignment as I folded more research-based argument writing into my curriculum, but I’m always careful to prep my kids with a highly visual demo of turnitin.com, a well-known plagiarism scrubber. (Our librarian pays the site’s pricey annual subscription; this tech has become a necessity for both our English and history departments.) Students’ eyes bulge when I show them the red-yellow-green plagiarism alerts, and this behind-the-scenes peek at my technology has proven to be good preventative medicine.
Also, I turned my standard plagiarism lecture into a game in the hopes that I can trick students into thinking we’re having fun when I’m really just hammering home all of the ways they can get themselves into academic trouble. The game-based plagiarism materials are available here, if you want to grab those slides.
Strategic assignments, stamped essay packets, and lots of examples of what not to do have helped mitigate the scourge of plagiarism in my classroom. Are there other tricks you’ve used to help keep kids honest? Share your ideas in the comments section below.
Teach on, everyone!