Seriously, though…

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One of the most telling moments during my recent “tour” came in a Q&A session with year 11 students.

I had already had one 50-minute session with this group.  The session had gone well, although I sensed that not every student had been giving me their full attention. was attentive. There had been some restlessness, some murmuring, some clearly not looking at the screen unless provoked by direct question.

The telling moment came right at the start of a 30 minute follow-up session.  When I asked the group if anyone had any questions, one hand went up. When given the nod to go ahead, this particular 11th grader asked, “Do they take plagiarism as seriously at university as they do at high school?”

Normally, I don’t dwell too much on the consequences of plagiarism and other forms of cheating at university level or in the world outside academia. I prefer a more positive approach.

Given this opening, however, I opened up. I explained how some universities give some instruction and help, sometimes very limited, while others assume that students already know the conventions of citation and referencing. I explained how universities are very different to schools, how there are no detentions or letters to parents, but instead penalties and consequences far more serious, including failure on the assignment, failing the course, expulsion. I explained how knowledge is built on trust, and if you prove untrustworthy then there is no place for you in academia.

There was no restlessness in this second session with this group. Suddenly, it was very real, very close to home, and very important. Everyone was attentive.

But I do wonder. I wonder about the messages we give – and the messages we get.  Do we give the impression that citation and referencing are hurdles and hoops that we make the students jump over or through to get through secondary school, but not really important, just something else to learn, and then forget?

(Do we – or our fellow-teachers – show this in our own behaviour, as, for instance, in our own work and presentations – my last posting very much in mind?)

Do we fail to get across the importance of WHY we cite and reference our sources, fail to show how they help make us better writers and more worthy of joining the academic conversation?

Do we concentrate too much on the correctness of formatting rather than on the heart of the matter, which is honesty as a matter of course, and the use of evidence in support of the points we wish to make?  Incorrectly formatted citations and references are NOT plagiarism, but is this what students believe?  Do we stifle them?

Not everyone falls short. Many – perhaps most – do understand and appreciate.

But the rest? What message do they get? Is it the right one? Is there more we could be doing? Seriously?

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