Plagiarism in the classroom – prevent it, don’t try to detect it.
The easiest way to prevent plagiarism is to assign unique papers – everyone has written a paper comparing Huck Finn to Tom Sawyer, or Frederick Douglass to Malcolm X, but who has written a paper comparing Huck Finn to Malcolm X?
Students can demonstrate their research and writing skills with so many interesting topics, not just the standard topics. A side benefit is that the class discussions and papers will be more interesting for the teacher. Imagine not having to grade that Finn/Sawyer paper for the 200th time!
And it’s not just English – history and science papers can take unique slants on a familiar topic just as easily. All it takes is a teacher who is willing to think a little outside the box, and draw from the whole curriculum or even cross-curriculum. What if Paul Revere had been a baker instead of silversmith? Teachers can brainstorm lists of wild and wacky concepts, then pick out a few that will demonstrate the skills that the assignment is intended to strengthen. In writing and research, the topic matters less than the skills used to address it, so why stick with the same old topics?
A second way to prevent plagiarism is to use in-class writing. If the students are in class and you give them 20 minutes to write about a topic, you can watch for cell phones and other devices to prevent plagiarism.
This has the added benefit that you then have a sample of their in-class writing that you can use to compare to out-of-class writing; if a student’s in-class writing has a completely different style from his/her homework assignments, that can be a sign of possible plagiarism (or a friend or family member helping a little too much).
A third way to prevent plagiarism is to use pre-writing. Assign or have the students choose a topic in class, and have them outline it in class as well. If they turn in each stage – brainstorm writing, outline, rough draft, second draft, peer editing, and final draft – then even if they try to plagiarize, they are still doing the bulk of the work.
By having students choose a topic and either outline or brainstorm in class, you can make plagiarism less possible. Honestly, if a student started with a pre-written paper, then worked backwards from draft to draft, pre-writing, and outline – then that student has learned the skills to write his/her own paper in the future.
Students today have easy access to pre-written papers and millions of easily-plagiarized web pages. A teacher can try to police the students by using online resources to “catch” plagiarism, or a teacher can assign unique papers, use in-class writing, and promote pre-writing to cut down or even eliminate plagiarism.