Friday, November 30, 2007

Should Students Fail for "a Little" Plagiarism?

I don’t have a problem enforcing grades in general. Where I struggle is when students complete the most grade-significant assignment, such as the research essay, and then I find plagiarism, copy/paste plagiarism that their report has found for them. All they needed to do was fix their essay before giving it to me, but many students cry fatigue, or confusion, or time crunch. They don’t dispute the plagiarism; they dispute that plagiarizing in the research essay means they fail the assignment.

Do I fail these students? So many students don’t even turn in the research essay that it feels like a waste to fail the ones who plagiarize, too. “At least I did it!” they tell me. “I’ll fix it!” Grabbing the nearest pen, they slap on quotation marks and some parentheses as I wonder how they know which resource to place within the two half moons. Does accuracy matter to them? I get the sense that they think my insistence that their work be 100% documented is as esoteric and arbitrary as if I required Roman numerals or Latin inscriptions. It feels like absurd bourgeois academic bologna to them. “I only missed a few sources,” they’ll explain. “I don’t understand why it’s such a big deal. Look!” they say as they show me the freshly inked page, “All better!”

I’ve spent weeks trying to explain it is a big deal. I have mini-lessons, group work, book passages, and online interactive activities to help them understand the nuances of academic integrity and documentation. We discuss how they have joined the world of academia and must attentively use the words and ideas of others. We even have that snazzy software,, which highlights the matches found on the Internet for them. All they need to do is check to ensure that those matches are, indeed, documented. Many students tell me candidly, “Oh, I didn’t check my report. I felt good about my essay. I didn’t know about that one part. How ‘bout I fix it for you?” The idea that I wanted them to find the plagiarism, that I’m trying to teach a man to fish here, falls flat. The cold clutch in my stomach predicts that honest documentation is the new spelling: 100% accuracy is an unrealistic goal that no rubric will require.

We are at odds, these students and I. My department and I think that plagiarizing on the research essay means a failing grade, and my students think plagiarizing means losing points. For the past two days, students have argued with me over this issue. No one argues that he or she didn’t plagiarize. My students argue that their lives are too difficult for the kind of attention I required. I’ve been told terrible stories about divorce battles, cancer treatments, and financial woe. Students have begged. They’ve cried. I’ve cried. I feel a little crazy—maybe plagiarizing isn’t such a big deal when it’s not the whole essay? Am I suppressing these students? Isn’t the fact that they tried enough? Must their work meet a standard of honesty, too? (I haven’t really read them yet, so there’s yet to be a question of quality…)

The process sickens me. I lose my perspective (and my desire to teach). Why do they turn this on me? This expectation has been made clear in the syllabus, the directions, my lessons. Why am I such a draconian person for expecting their work to be properly documented when that’s what I have been teaching them how to do and what 75% of their classmates have done? I’ve been teaching thirteen years, and I cry about this almost every semester. Reading the newspaper or watching the news, I’ll see reports about “lowered standards in our public schools,” and I’ll think, “I can’t be a part of that. Reduction of expectations in the public school is akin to systematic oppression of the poor.” Yet when I’m in the middle of this grading plight, when they beg me and explain their lives are too difficult to write with attention and integrity, to please, please, please not fail them, that they’ve never written such a big assignment before and that failing it would crush their spirits, I’m so unsure that my expectations have merit. The world feels topsy-turvy, and my nerves vibrate in my hands and neck as I worry what the right priority should be…

This semester, I’ve decided those students can write another research essay on another topic with completely new sources. I’m letting it be due after the winter holiday, which means I probably won’t be teaching them when it comes due, that I’ll have to do grade change forms in the midst of starting a new term. If they plagiarize again, even “just a little,” they get the “F.” If they do a good job meeting the requirements, including the shocking standard of academic integrity, then they earn no more than a 70 on the assignment. The tears have been wiped away. My concession is satisfactory. Am I a chump or a compassionate educator?

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Educator


Kelly Jean Walden said...

I think that's the perfect solution!

Mrs. Stansbury said...

Funny- I work with educators that would probably scream 'chump'! Me, I typically allow full credit when students redo something. But for my class that means the student will take on twice the work load to make up an assignment that was done poorly or not done at all. One more condition- they do all the work after school in my room! Many of my students are grateful and only the truly determined and repentant students participate.

I like the idea of doing a new research paper for pre-warned students who choose to ignore directions. I'll consider this in the future-

Anonymous said...

I teach middle school English and many students come in with the a belief that copying is writing. I make it clear to my students that they live at a time when their work can easily be checked. Whenever I introduce a research paper, I make the students begin the work in class. They must brain storm, write a strong thesis, and begin writing at least three paragraphs before I send them out to begin gathering research.
I encourage them to first create a five to seven paragraph essay about the writing topic and then they gather quotes, data, and facts that support their thesis. In the long run, it helps me to recognize their writing voice, teach them the power of using their own words, and discourages plagirizing.
This is also prevents them from turning in papers written by mothers and fathers. Parents can help with their final drafts but the ideas, concepts, voice, come from the students.

CH said...

The natural solution for a student not handing in orignial works is to have the student complete the assigned task or a similar task (thanks to Doug Reeves for this thought). Honestly, what is wrong with expecting the student to be accountable for the work which is assigned? If a student of mine does not do the work honestly we have a discussion about integrity, respect, and responsibility.

Kate Ware said...

I think ultimately you holding your students responsible for their work is the best thing you can do for them. By failing an assignment for plagiarism, you are showing them that there are real consequences for this act, and that academically it is unacceptable. Imagine what would happen if your students went to college and tried to pull the same stunt in a college classroom. Students are expelled from universities for academic dishonesty. I think it's important that you prepare them for this, despite how difficult their situations at home might be.