In our world today, we can share posts with the click of a button. We can copy a picture from Google images and use it in a variety of ways. There are endless images and words on the internet, and it is all so easily shareable. I don't think that giving appropriate credit for work, ideas, or words is emphasized. For young people, this shareable world is the only one they've known, and this reality presents a particular challenge as they grow into the middle and high school years: plagiarism. That is, using someone else's words or ideas without giving proper credit.
In the elementary years, children typically write only their own ideas. As they progress into late elementary and middle school, the research process comes more into play. That is, looking for and incorporating the ideas of others into student work, which requires knowledge of giving credit where it is due. What may appear to be a straightforward task to us as adults--properly crediting resources--is particularly challenging for middle schoolers in our shareable world.
Some of the most common examples of plagiarism I see in student work are:
- Including a quote with no quotation marks or citation
- Copying summaries from online resources like Shmoop or Sparknotes and changing a few words to make it seem original
- Not including a works cited page for an essay
- Using images or videos without giving credit
Why do students plagiarize? Survey says...
For middle school students, I believe there are generally more instances of plagiarism out of ignorance than willful acts of plagiarism--students this age often do not realize that what they are doing is wrong or inappropriate. I have found that, most of the time, students really want to do the right thing.
Interestingly, this year, I surveyed seventh grade students and asked them why students are tempted to plagiarize – many students said that they think that laziness drives plagiarism. They don’t want to do the work being asked, or they don’t want to take the extra time to make sure that citations and research are done properly.
I also asked students when they personally have been tempted to plagiarize in their academic career, and many of them submitted comments along the lines of experiencing this temptation when they were rushing to complete something or when they were feeling overwhelmed about completing quality work. Some students shared that the pressure that they feel to get good grades can drive the temptation to plagiarize because they ultimately want the best score possible on their work.
Parents and Plagiarism
As adults involved in helping young people grow and develop, it's vital that we emphasize and model the importance of academic integrity. As a teacher, I have felt convicted about taking the time to review our school policy on academic integrity with students and giving students the chance to ask questions. And I am aware that I am also accountable for academic integrity--if I’m using an image from a Google search in a PowerPoint, I need to do everything in my power to give credit where credit is due. Along the same lines, there are a few things that parents can keep in mind to support their students, as well as a few tips and strategies to ensure student success in the realm of academic integrity.
1. Set the tone.
As the adult in a child’s life, it is important that educators and parents not dismiss or downplay plagiarism. Modeling the opinion that “plagiarism isn’t that big of a deal or problem” can communicate a dismissive attitude that is caught by students. Even if this sentiment is not overtly stated by a parent, trying to remove or alter consequences for a student if they are accused of plagiarism can send the same message.
2. Learn the school policy.
As drab as it may sound, being familiar with your school's handbook--specifically the plagiarism policy-- can be a significant help. For parents, it is important to be aware of your student's school policy on plagiarism, including the consequences for each offense. Being familiar with the policy empowers parents to guide their students and hold them accountable.
3. Encourage computer literacy.
I think one of the biggest contributing factors to student plagiarism is a lack of computer literacy and an understanding of how the internet work. As you’re training up your student, help them understand how the Internet works when it comes to researching. When you look something up on Google, it’s not your idea, and you can’t just take whatever the top Google result is and copy it into your paper without giving credit. This takes more time and more digging, but it’s necessary.
4. Foster time and task management.
As I mentioned earlier, many of my students report that they are most tempted to plagiarize when they feel rushed or overwhelmed. When we rush, we're tempted to take shortcuts. Helping students develop the skills to realistically budget the time it takes to do quality work goes such a long way.
5. When in doubt...
One thing I love to remind my students of can also help parents: When in doubt, CITE! As a student is working on a particular assignment that requires outside resources, if a question arises as to whether or not to cite something--go for it!
6. Partner with teachers.
A second thing I love to encourage my students: When in doubt, ASK THE TEACHER! If a student is working an assignment and questions come up, it's a great idea to seek out the teacher. An added benefit to well-managed time and work (see number four) is that it affords students the space to ask their teachers questions and seek clarity prior to a deadline. If an instance of plagiarism arises, partner with your child’s teacher to understand the nature of the violation so that your student can not repeat the same error in the future.
The Heart of the Matter
One thing that may be misconstrued in the what teachers are truly "after" in emphasizing academic integrity and taking plagiarism very seriously. Most teachers do not take any sort of pleasure in being the plagiarism police. In reality, dealing with plagiarism is an incredibly time-consuming task for teachers. But we take it seriously because the task of educators, similar to parents, is to train up students for whatever is next. Whether it is more schooling or the workforce, taking credit for someone else's work carries severe consequences. It's so important to teacher students when they are young that it isn't just about cheating or copying and perhaps losing some points on an assignment--integrity matters far beyond this.
And on perhaps an even more fundamental level, plagiarism isn't just an act of cheating that we are trying to discourage students from committing. Rather, plagiarism is an obstacle to student growth. Even if a student "gets away with" willful cheating or plagiarizing in their early years and suffers no or minimal external consequences, it is harmful on a deeper level. Willful plagiarism is an obstacle to critical thought, and a shortcut that replaces personal growth. Viewing the issue from this perspective helps students, teachers, and parents move in the same direction towards growth and development.