Teaching Students to Plagiarize

my whiteboard after talking
about plagiarism
I believe a lot of teachers today are teaching their students to plagiarize. It's almost never intentional, I'm sure, but it's true. I've seen the effects in one of my classes, where I've recently caught several students with plagiarism in their essays.

When I told my students about the plagiarism that had occurred in their writing and how they need to avoid it in the future, there was one student who grumbled about how teachers give plagiarism talks all the time. I'm sure many teachers do give plagiarism talks. In the end, though, talking clearly isn't effective. Educators need to walk the walk by ending the learning patterns that encourage plagiarism.

What do these patterns look like? To begin, I would point to the top-down conception of knowledge present in virtually every classroom I know of. Constantly over the course of their schooling, students are taught in myriad ways that knowledge comes from sources of authority: Knowledge comes from teachers and adults, first of all, but it also comes from textbooks, and other sources—like the internet. Students have it pounded into them that these are the places to look for the "right answers"—but the idea that all these sources have flaws and that none of them is perfect, well, students often have to figure that out for themselves.

Why does this hammered-in belief in top-down knowledge matter? Well, students know when answering worksheets that the answers must come from the textbook, or the reading, or what the teacher said in class. Usually such worksheets have no questions requiring students to explain concepts in their own words or paraphrase information to a high academic standard. Instead, students find the answer and plug it in, leaving the words and phrases virtually the same as in the original. It's teacher-encouraged plagiarism, just a word, phrase, or sentence at a time.

I am absolutely guilty of assigning this type of work. I've already asked for these sorts of answers many times, even after just six months as a student teacher. I have, however, often tried to include higher-taxonomy questions in my assignments, asking students to analyze and explain information or even draw a concept as it makes the most sense for them. It's nearly impossible to have one "right" answer with these sorts of questions, and students have to think just a little harder.

source of most of my students'
Plagiarism is also more likely, I feel, when students lack writing proficiency and writing self-esteem. Almost everything sounds better when someone more knowledgeable and experienced than you writes it. It can be extremely difficult not to use the expert phrases and sentences they use. (I know this feeling well, since it was a constant presence in my life through college, including when I wrote my thesis.)

I set my U.S. history students up to plagiarize when I gave them two writing assignments in relatively short succession that were based on—or could include—online research. I required the students to include footnotes, (which led me straight to the plagiarism in some cases), but I failed to provide any guidance beforehand on what proper summarizing, paraphrasing, and quoting looks like. When I did find plagiarism, I gave the student a temporary zero on the assignment and asked them to go back and fix the problem for a real grade. Maybe that was a good way to teach the lesson... but I also feel I really did set them up.

In the future, I aim to provide thorough instruction on plagiarism before giving research paper assignments in any class. More than that, however, I want to challenge the patterns of teaching and learning that elevate and glorify the already-written word. I want to show students on a regular basis that their words can improve on what's already been written, and their words can critique the faults and biases of other sources. I know I won't always succeed in these goals, but maybe now that I've articulated them—and recorded them in my own words—I can help more students find their voice.