Keeping It Real

April 15, 2005 4 min read
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Technology has blurred the distinction between plagiarism and research.

It wasn’t the fact that 35 sophomores at Phoenix’s Mountain Pointe High School were caught using a Web site containing answers to an English vocabulary test. It wasn’t even that the brazen cheaters were honor students. What most shocked teachers Carol Miller and June Olson was that many of the teens saw nothing wrong with what they had done.

“That’s the hardest part for them, that someone else’s ideas are proprietary,” Olson says. “They don’t get that.” “It was a big, big mess,” Miller says of the 2001 incident, which sparked parent complaints about the students’ punishment (community service) to the district school board and the Arizona Department of Education. “We never want to go there again.” To make sure they didn’t have to, the two teachers decided they needed to do something more than just get better at catching technology-enabled cheating—they needed to teach their students right from electronic wrong.

Last summer, the pair developed an anti- plagiarism unit that’s now presented to all English students. Through a PowerPoint presentation and teacher demonstrations of unacceptable paraphrases and good ones, kids learn what plagiarism is, why it’s wrong, and when and how to cite sources. Following a question-and-answer session, they must score at least 90 percent on a test covering what they’ve learned.

Technology-driven plagiarism is a serious problem. According to a 2001 national survey by Rutgers University researcher Donald McCabe and Duke University’s Center for Academic Integrity, more than half of the 4,500 high school students polled admitted they had plagiarized Internet sources for use in written assignments. With the Internet making cheating easier, teachers are being forced to find new ways to combat it. And while software is now available to help educators detect plagiarism in papers, teachers such as Miller and Olson are shifting their focus toward preventing it in the first place.

To further immunize their assignments from plagiarism, the two teachers have changed the way they assign and grade papers. Instead of just analyzing a novel or short story read in class, students must combine their knowledge of the text with secondary reading. For example, after reading One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a student might research mental health care and develop a thesis supported with examples from both the novel and other sources.

“Those are topics you can’t buy from a paper mill,” Miller notes. On such projects, students earn as many points for the research process as they do for the final product. “If they don’t turn in those materials—the note cards, the source list, the rough draft, all those pre-assignments—then we don’t grade the paper,” she explains.

As a final safeguard, students have to submit an electronic version of their final paper so it can be examined with anti-plagiarism software. But Olson says the proactive training, along with a revised district policy that clearly defines cheating, fabrication, plagiarism, and appropriate Internet use to complete assignments, has made the software largely unnecessary.

Some teachers have gone to even further extremes to prevent online cheating. Cynthia Burnstein, an English teacher at Salem High School in Canton, Michigan, now requires her 9th graders to do all of their writing in the school’s computer lab, and only during class time.

“I find that they’re more focused and they just get more accomplished when they’re composing on the computer,” Burnstein explains. “Part of the problem for a lot of kids is that they’re pressured for time. And when they write at home, they’re tired; they’re distracted. Nobody’s making them stay on task. So it’s very tempting to copy somebody else’s paper.”

While writing short research papers, students save their work at the end of each hour, and Burnstein collects several drafts over the course of two weeks so she has a record of how each student’s paper is unfolding. Before she had students write during class time exclusively, she would sometimes get final papers that were completely unrelated to the original drafts.

“But since I’ve had students in the computer lab, that has not happened,” Burnstein notes. “I don’t ever get anything that’s totally different from what they’ve done before.”

Doug Johnson, director of media and technology for Mankato Area Public Schools in Minnesota (and a columnist for this magazine), says such preventive strategies are far more effective than trying to catch students in the act. What’s more, he adds, they tend to engage and ultimately teach the students more.

“It’s really difficult to change people’s ethical stance,” Johnson says. “But as an educator, what I can do is use good pedagogical methods that ask for higher-level thinking skills, creativity, and application of what one is researching in order to simplify the nature of the assignment and reduce the probability of plagiarism.”

He cites a successful World War II research project that middle schoolers in his district completed a few years ago. Students interviewed people from the community who served in the military or who worked on the home front during the war. Then, they created Web pages using the information they gathered from the interviews and secondary sources, along with photos and graphics.

“These things are not rocket science,” Johnson says. “They’re just a different way of looking at why and how we do research. Research is not just an academic exercise. It’s a life skill, which people need to know how to do if they’re going to survive in the information age.”

—Lynn Waldsmith

A version of this article appeared in the May 01, 2005 edition of Teacher as Keeping It Real


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