Plagiarism and the Challenge of Essay
Learning from our Students
Janice Newton, Department of Political Science
Most of us have encountered plagiarized essays at some time in our teaching careers, and we may assume that dishonesty leads students to do this. In one common form of plagiarized essay, the student has done the research, written most of the essay, but leaves out critical quotation marks or footnotes. In contrast to other forms of academic dishonesty, such as a purchased essay or submission of someone else's work, this type of plagiarism always strikes me as especially curious. Invariably, I can discern some measure of intelligence in students' selection of the unacknowledged facts or ideas they copied. Why would they fail to acknowledge their extensive research after they had done so much work gathering together relevant material? Rather than thinking of these students as simply dishonest and deserving of punishment, we need to try to understand what leads students to do this and how we can help transform them into competent and confident essay writers who do not need to resort to such ruses to succeed in University.
To understand this problem, I believe we should start by listening to our students and learning from them. By taking their perspective into account, we can significantly improve our ability to teach our students the basic mechanical skills of proper referencing and improve their essay-writing skills in the process. Drawing on my experience over the years and interviews with a number of students who have been charged with plagiarism, I have identified four common factors that faculty can address: sloppy research methods; reliance on inappropriate reference guides; misunderstanding of the logic and rules of referencing; and weak essay-writing skills.
I routinely ask students about whom I have suspicions to bring all their research notes to my office so we can discuss the entire essay-production process. Sometimes I discover that the student has collected Xerox copies or taken copious notes from the library sources, with absolutely no reliable way of tracing the source or page number. I think of these students as enthusiastic vacuums who suck up all the relevant material they can find, without understanding the need for retrieval and verification of sources. Many have admitted to me that they realized the information for proper citations was missing while typing the final draft, but at 3:00 a.m. before the deadline date, they simply decided it was not worth it to track down the sources. These students understand the logic and mechanics of referencing, but decide to leave the citations out, hoping that no one will notice. Careless students are easy to identify (from a quick glance at their research notes) and easy to help. I show them how to collect the relevant bibliographic information when they are searching for sources on the Library's on-line catalogue, and they can even use this from home at 3:00 a.m. if they have a computer and a modem. I offer them a one-page handout they can take to the library to guide them in collecting the proper information. Using a sample of my own research notes, I demonstrate that good research notes can be used years later if they distinguish quotations from paraphrases and record page numbers and full bibliographic information. Finally, I require them to undertake the tedious task of tracking down their sources and re-doing the assignment. If the timing is right, I will also make a note to myself to ask to see their research notes while the next essay is in progress, just to make sure they have mastered the habit.
Choice of Reference Guides:
Another common problem is students' reliance on inappropriate sources for instruction on how to reference. Almost half of the students I interviewed acknowledged that they knew they were probably not doing it right, but instead of consulting their tutor, the required reference text in the course, or the course handouts, they turned to unsuitable sources for help: friends, parents, or old handouts from high school. In these cases, the advice they got or remembered was often misleading.
Recommending that students buy a reliable, university-level reference guide is crucial, but it is also important to ensure that the students know how to use it. When I first required my students to buy the MLA Handbook, I discovered many had no idea how to use it. Several students took the textbook approach - starting on page one, hoping as they read to find the answer they were looking for. This is like reading a dictionary from page one, hoping eventually to encounter the word you want to spell. Without understanding the concept of a reference source, I was not surprised these students gave up on the MLA Handbook. Now, I require them to bring it to class and I explain how to use the index, how the different sections work, and highlight the most useful sections so they can readily find what they need.
Understanding the Rules:
Students charged with plagiarism often claim they misunderstand the rules for proper referencing. The most common reason I have encountered is students’ belief that certain types of sources are somehow "exempt" despite explicit instruction to the contrary. The range of such exemptions varies according to the student. Some believe that course texts, government documents or readings from other courses do not require referencing. Some students claim they were only required to reference limited types of sources: direct quotations but not paraphrases; statistical facts but not other people’s ideas or words. A few claim that if they include references in the bibliography, it is not necessary to reference the ideas used in the body of the essay. Several worry they will have "too many" footnotes, so they arbitrarily include some but leave others out. Each of these mistaken notions of "exempt" sources reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the logic of proper referencing.
I have trouble finding these explanations credible, because I always cover these issues explicitly in course handouts and lectures. Nonetheless, despite the abundance of material available for students to learn proper referencing, a significant minority of students seems to resist learning. When asked, many acknowledge that they ignore the lectures and handouts because they believe they already know how to do this. An astonishing number of students lack the competence to reference, but nonetheless feel confident they know how to do it.
Conducting classroom research to assess my students’ prior knowledge and ability to reference, I discovered shocking results in two of my second year classes (350 students). When I administered a short, unmarked assignment, only 10-15 percent actually had a satisfactory working knowledge of skills I considered necessary for this level. In contrast to teaching new material, where students may listen more closely precisely because they know they know so little, when we reach familiar material, we must find ways to encourage them to asses the adequacy of their prior knowledge critically.
One solution is to integrate key components of proper referencing skills into a course assignment, letting students know they will lose grades if they do not properly master these skills. When you deduct grades for problems in referencing, you can allow students to do an error analysis and correct their mistakes to recover lost grades. This way, you can be satisfied that even the students who did not get it right the first time actually learn the proper method by correcting their own errors. The chance to reduce the grade penalty offers and added incentive to learn. Lecturing on this topic may never be enough. Some students may require additional impetus that comes from one-to-one instruction or written assignments.
In sum, as these problems arose in my interviews with students, I learned to alter they way I teach. First, I emphasize that no "category" of source is exempt from referencing: books, quotations, statistics, paraphrases, government documents, speeches, and course texts all must be cited. Second, I explicitly encourage students to collect complete bibliographic information while researching. Third, I encourage them to line up an appropriate authority to consult when in doubt: the tutor; the handout; the reference book in the course; or the appropriate Writing Center. Fourth, and perhaps most important, I continue to emphasize the connection between referencing and essay writing skills in general.
The difficulty some students have in mastering the technical skills of proper referencing is often rooted in weak essay-writing skills. Students who lack confidence (or who have poor essay-writing skills) may find the expectations of proper referencing daunting when applied to their writing process. They experience a credibility gap, finding it hard to believe you expect them to acknowledge every source -- that would mean everything in their paper would be referenced. This attribute is premised on a profound lack of self-confidence and bewilderment as to how to develop their own ideas in an essay. Many of the students I spoke with were distressed when I pointed out that they had to acknowledge their sources. A common puzzled response is: "But then my entire essay would be all quotations or paraphrases! Nothing comes from me." These students are very frustrated because they know, on the one hand, they must do research, but on the other hand, they have been asked to develop a thesis and an argument. They are often capable of the former but terrified and bewildered at the prospects of doing the latter. I am convinced that many students, lacking the confidence and the skills to develop their own analysis or argument, deliberately retreat to plagiarism in the desperate and naïve belief that other people's ideas will be mistaken for their own argument.
An example illustrates this point. In one fourth year class, students prepared research papers on a current federal policy of their choice. The essay question asked them to evaluate the policy in light of different theoretical issues we had studied in the course. One students' essay thoroughly and competently surveyed the literature on pornography policy, but lacked adequate references. The paper was further flawed, because it displayed a total absence of argument throughout. The student had simply failed to assess the evidence or make judgements as to the relative significance of the material she had collected. When I called her into my office, we discussed the problems of referencing briefly. She lamented, "How can I reference everything, the whole essay comes from sources?" I agreed that this is how the essay appeared to me, and changed my tack. I explained that the absence of her argument and judgement of the evidence was striking. After all, people had blown up video stored over this issue! I spent the rest of the hour praising her research skills, for she had collected relevant and crucial material. Paragraph by paragraph, I encouraged her to explain the implications of this evidence for the essay question. I was not surprised, given her research, that it took little effort on my part for her to start making the judgements that led her to develop a cogent thesis. At this point she broke into tears, and lamented that no one in University had asked her to think and develop her own argument. Since no one had cared what she thought about the topics in her essays, she had lost interest in writing essays. Essays had become boring exercises in expressing other people's ideas. This was the last essay she would write, and she cried because she felt she had missed out on a whole dimension of learning. She said she longed to go back and rewrite all those "B" essays, with her new understanding of how to relate her arguments and ideas to the research material. By talking about her own ideas, she quickly learned the importance of maintaining the distinction between other people's ideas and her own.
What can we learn from this student? I don't think she was at all unusual except in the frankness with which she disclosed her feelings. It is our job to help students through this difficult transition from repeating other people's ideas to developing their own, and I think we should expect the bulk of this transition to occur in the first and second years of University. When we insist that our students openly declare their use of sources, it becomes glaringly apparent that it is now their turn to say something. I am convinced that far from being a technical or mechanical issue, teaching proper referencing is intimately bound up with teaching students about thinking and developing their own ideas, arguments and judgements. Once students have clearly set out another person's ideas, they can then ask: So what? Why is this significant? How does this help answer the question? In short, teaching proper referencing can be yet another means to challenge and encourage students to think for themselves. If we keep this goal in sight, spending time teaching our students how to reference properly can be rewarding and worthwhile.
[This essay accompanied a presentation at the June 1995 annual conference of the American Association of Higher Education, Boston, MA.]
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