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plagiarism

I had no plagiarism cases this fall. Maybe it is because I had an unusually ethical group of students, but it probably also had something to do with analysis they did based on short documents instead of books commonly discussed on the internet. With few exceptions, there were no answers to be found on the internet, though I took some chances with the inclusion of A Doll’s House in some questions. Even then, I did not let students focus on Ibsen’s play, but instead forced them to relate it to short documents that I made available on Blackboard. I have made similar attempts in the past, but usually by asking big synthetic questions based on two or three books instead of narrower interpretive questions based mainly on two or three specific documents.

Another variable was length. These source analysis exercises were only two pages, if that, which might have been short enough to prevent the kind of panic that leads to some plagiarism cases. Of course, two pages is less than ideal, but I had more than 150 students this past fall. Even with a grader to help me 10 hours per week, there was an enormous amount of assessment to do, especially since there were three of these exercises.

On a related note, in the coming semester I am going over to the dark side with some quizzes and parts of my exams. By that I mean I will be integrating some multiple-choice and fill-in-the-blank elements. As much as I prefer to have students actively produce knowledge in exams, there is a limit to how much grading I can and should do, a limit I far exceeded last semester. Moreover, I will still be having them do analysis. Unfortunately, multiple-choice and fill-in-the-blank questions can raise the specter of copying in overcrowded classrooms. It is with this issue in mind that I plan to use multiple versions of quizzes and exams. I am just not sure if I will have to create these by hand or if there is an easy and free technological solution.

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I had a new personal record in plagiarism cases this semester: eight. With ninety-seven students total on my rolls at the end of the semester, that makes a little over 8%. To be absolutely clear, I am talking about open-and-shut cases. The burden of proof is on the professor, as it should be, so I never report any honor system violations based merely on my suspicions, no matter how strong they might be.

Some of the cases stem from this semester’s new bibliography project. In the past I had tried to craft integrative essay assignments that made plagiarism impossible or very difficult, but I had wanted to move beyond text analysis and writing to also cover research skills, which have proven to be a major deficit among many of my students. I had thought a bibliography project would invite less plagiarism than a straight research paper, since I have not seen bibliography essays for sale on the internet. I was right about buying a finished product, but not about preventing plagiarism. Feeling overwhelmed, a few students panicked and opted to copy and paste material they found on the internet. These examples were the clumsiest. I also saw some examples where students worked harder to integrate internet material than they would have had to work, had they simply opened some books and summarized their contents. I saw both types of behavior on the other essay assignments too.

What happens to these students depends on whether it is their first or second offense. The first offenses that I have seen have led to a zero for the assignment in question. Since these are often worth 25% of the course grade, students found guilty of their first honor system violation have to work hard just to earn a “D” in the course. Second offenses have led to failure of the course. Perhaps there were also other sanctions for second-time offenders that I do not know about.

The high number of plagiarism cases has made me wonder what I could change about assignments and assessment in future. Since I am not slated to teach this spring, I have some time to mull this over. Meanwhile, what are your thoughts and experiences?

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