Plagiarism in the Classroom Prevention rather than Detection

In my most recent two years of teaching English as a second language, I have been teaching adult students English composition. These wonderful and motivated students not only have to have a wide vocabulary in order to write well, they also need to understand the American approach to essays, the correct way to connect sentences, not to mention tone, style, citations and much more.

Thus, it is not surprising to have some of them try to plagiarize in order to get by in a writing class. In many cases, they simply might not know better, or it may even be considered okay in their culture. Unfortunately, it can be quite time consuming to detect plagiarism and to find it in such a way that you can prove it. Thus, I have developed a strategy to prevent plagiarism in my classroom, thus decreasing the amount of detection I had to do. My strategy has three main features: teach, exemplify, verify. I implement this strategy within the first week of classes, and repeat the strategy at least two more times per semester.

The first thing we need to do is teach students about plagiarism. We need to define the word and explain why it is bad. We need to attach automatic, non-negotiable and harsh penalties for plagiarism of any kind. Here’s what I say:

“Plagiarism is when you use another person’s words or information in your writing without showing where you got it. If it did NOT come from your head, but from somewhere else, you MUST show where it came from. If you don’t that is plagiarism. Any case of plagiarism receives an automatic, unchangeable ‘F'”. This gets students’ attention and they are interested in the next step.

I use the PowerPoint for this lesson, thus, this part is very clear. On the screen I show students a topic for an essay. I then go to Google with my students and type in the key words for my topic. Of course Wikipedia comes up, but I do not use it as any good teacher will tell you that Wikipedia is not reliable. I choose a more reliable source, such as a university’s website. Then I demonstrate plagiarizing a sentence, a paragraph and even ideas.

After I show the students all the types of plagiarism possible, I show them how to avoid it. I demonstrate, and then we practice by summarizing and paraphrasing.

Finally we practice how to use citations for the different types of information you can use in your essay.

In order to make sure that nothing is plagiarized in an essay, and to show the students just how easy it is to find plagiarism, I do the following.

We go to the writing lab and each student opens their current essay on a computer. Then I have students switch with someone so that each student is looking at another student’s essay. I use the overhead projector to demonstrate searching for an exact quote from an essay, and then I ask the students to choose one or two sentences from each paragraph of the essay in front of them. They search for these sentences in Google.

There have been a few red faces and nervous outbreaks of laughter when we do this and somebody’s sentence gets a hit on Google. But this is before anything is turned in to me, so there is time to change the essay.

My final step in preventing plagiarism is to repeat this process at least two more times during the semester. Of course I still check on suspiciously good writing, but more often than not I come up empty. It turns out that my strategy for preventing plagiarism actually works.