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Last night I sat through two webcasts promoted as part of Plagiarism Education Week, promoted and hosted by Turnitin. One of the two webcasts was, I thought, spot-on, encouraging, helpful. The other was … disappointing.

In Tweets from the French Revolution? Using What Students Know to Promote Original Work and Critical Thinking, one of the speakers described a research study he had conducted.  For the first part of the study, 20 adult English learners were given an assignment : write an essay on a historical event or figure. After they had written their essays, the adults were asked two questions: (1) had they found the assignment difficult? and (2) had the assignment helped develop their critical thinking skills?

Most declared they had found the assignment easy, and most said that it had not required critical thinking.  Meanwhile, a check revealed that every single student had plagiarized. Let’s make that “plagiarized.”

The speaker went on to say that the students were then given a short course on attribution. I quote the words of the webcast: “Once the students demonstrated a thorough understanding of plagiarism and a mastery of quoting and paraphrasing” they were given a second assignment.

This was the second part of the study. The same adult learners were now asked to write a FaceBook or Twitter page based on the same historical event or person they had written about earlier. This time, they all described the assignment as challenging. This time, 85% said their critical thinking skills had been engaged. And this time, not a single student plagiarized.

The speaker suggested that his research demonstrates that it is not the creative process which ensures original writing, it is the personal engagement with the task. “It is not the creative process which ensures original work… more the personal investment,” he said.

It is a curious thought. I don’t dispute it, though I am sure the novelty of the assignment probably helped too.  Certainly we are told, and we know from our own experience that when students are engaged with their work, when it means something to them, they are more likely to produce work which is theirs. The original assignment just asked for the “Brown-bear-is-brown” treatment*. And that is just what it got.

But the speaker missed another conclusion, one which somehow seems equally fundamental and equally valid.

If you don’t teach students how to quote and paraphrase and cite their sources, you should not  be surprised if they “plagiarize.”

On the other hand, if you do teach students how to use other people’s work properly, remind them that it’s necessary and give them practice, they are far more likely to use other people’s work properly. In this case, 100% more likely to do it right.

That message, somehow, was completely glossed over in the webcast. It seemed to be irrelevant – and it surely isn’t.  Two interventions had been made on the situation in the first assignment, not one.  Without that second intervention, without being sure that they knew how to do it right, the students might have “plagiarized” no matter how interesting and engaging the assignment. If they don’t learn, how can they ever know? If they don’t know, how can they ever learn?

The other webcast was completely different. In Harnessing the Power of Choice and “Teachable Moments” in the Development of Integrity, Teddi Fishman, President Director of ICAI (the International Center for Academic Integrity), concentrated on the academic conversation.

She suggested that Preventing Cheating is NOT the same as Developing Integrity.
She suggested that we need to be sure that students have been taught and know how to use other people’s work before we condemn them.
She suggested that text-matching software may teach students paraphrase, so they can avoid being caught for plagiarizing, but it doesn’t help them learn WHY we want them to cite – so they can take part in academic conversation.
She used her horse-training analogy to suggest that if students don’t learn why integrity matters, they’ll revert to bad habits if they think what they are doing does not matter.
She suggested that it’s not enough to tell them, and it’s not enough to teach them, we need to be sure they have learnt what is required, and that much learning comes from making mistakes.  Blame-free mistakes.

Develop integrity and students will want to do right. Develop understanding, and students will know why and when and how to do right.

It was a very different presentation. It was encouraging and exciting and thought-provoking. It was refreshing. Thank you, Teddi, you saved my evening.

* Brown-bear-is-brown. From Barbara Stripling and Judy Pitts, Brainstorms and Blueprints: Teaching Library Research as a Thinking Process (Libraries Unlimited, 1988, p. 1)



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