George Lucas Educational Foundation
Character Education

Why Students Plagiarize

One teacher addresses plagiarism by examining the underlying causes such as a lack of confidence or time management skills.

July 23, 2019
High school student copying notes from a textbook
SmitBruins / Twenty20

It’s happening again. I feel the sentence structure at a subdermal level and know I’m confronting plagiarism before my eyes reach the period. A quick Google search reveals that my ninth-grade student did not write this sentence: “The memories stirred by the song cause Odysseus to weep, and, though he tries to hide it, the king notices and distracts the crowd by suggesting they begin an athletic competition.”

No single word in the passage is beyond my student’s reach, but I know what his writing sounds like—and this is not it. My search leads me to a site called Course Hero where “his” words appear. I email the student with a link to the site and ask him to come in to discuss. He responds politely, but he is adamant that he has never been on the site. “You can check my computer history,” he says. I schedule a meeting with him.

In 20 years of teaching, I’ve found ways to decrease plagiarism, but I have yet to eliminate it. Plagiarism frustrates me not only because it is cheating but also because it makes me feel as though my teaching has fallen short.

The Council of Writing Program Administrators identifies causes of plagiarism, including students’ fear of taking risks in their writing, having poor time management skills, and viewing the assignment and standards for documentation as unimportant.

Addressing plagiarism requires building students’ confidence in their writing, developing skills to navigate school stress, fostering investment in the assignment, and creating understanding of plagiarism and attribution. As a teacher, I have agency to address these issues. My response to plagiarism addresses four forces that lead a student to plagiarize.

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Satisfaction With One’s Own Words

Students are sometimes maddened by the lumpy, inelegant sound of their writing. They read the words of someone with years of experience that sound so much more fluid. They might experiment with switching out a few synonyms or just paste the passage into their document. “That’s what I was going to say anyway,” a student once said in defense of a copied passage.

I tell my students that they have to write like a ninth grader before they can write like a tenth grader. The trick is to keep writing, in their own voice and with their own words. There are no shortcuts.

If I praise my students and use gentle methods to nudge them along, I hope they will trust themselves as writers. If my response sows doubt, they may lose faith in their own voices and look for someone else’s words.

The Value of the Assignment

The task of stringing one’s thoughts together can be daunting—especially if students aren’t invested in their thoughts initially. The Council of Writing Program Administrators argues that when presented with “generic or unparticularized” assignments, “students may believe they are justified in looking for canned responses.”

In the earlier example, the student hadn’t plagiarized the “thinking” part of the writing; he’d plagiarized the “generic” summary portion.

I want to introduce students to Homer’s epics, and I want them to understand the value of summary when writing about literature. I want them to analyze patterns and themes in their reading. Was this assignment the best way to teach these skills? Upon reflection, offering a mini-lesson on summary would have turned the rote part of this assignment into an opportunity for refining a valuable skill. Recognizing my unintended complicity is important in decreasing students’ motivation for cheating.

In their book Beyond Literary Analysis, Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell assert that students’ analyses are more vibrant and authentic when the students are driven by the passion and authority that come from writing about their own areas of expertise.

Revealing Roadblocks

The student who plagiarized had missed class and submitted the paper late. I explained that the passage he had used could be found in various places and that I was not concerned with where he found it, but rather why he used it instead of his own words.

In discussing the why, we focused on the roadblocks the student perceived. I gave him a mini-lesson on summarizing, and he practiced it right on the spot. We discussed attribution, and brainstormed attributive tags. We talked about ways to address the pressure of facing past-due assignments, and when he suggested “ask for help” I cheered his answer. He offered to rewrite the summary.

Understanding Plagiarism

There are times students may not understand how writers use others’ ideas and words. Understanding attribution and citation is an important skill for avoiding plagiarism. A colleague asked students to draw a map for the setting in To Kill a Mockingbird. A student painstakingly redrew one she found on Google, not understanding that she was to devise the map from textual evidence in the book.

Particularly in this age of rapid-fire reposting and image sharing, our students’ perception of copying might not match ours. In “Of Flattery and Thievery: Reconsidering Plagiarism in a Time of Virtual Information,” education professor P.L. Thomas writes that helping students understand plagiarism requires outlining a framework for defining terms, developing guidelines, and establishing consequences.

No two plagiarism episodes are alike, but all offer learning opportunities for both the student and the teacher. In the Odysseus example, I decided to give the student half credit for his paper. I explained that aside from the plagiarized first paragraph, his analysis exhibited solid thinking and expression. In short, I valued his work. I reminded him of repercussions of future plagiarism, which in our school involves disciplinary action. This was one of the final papers of the semester, but I will check in with him next fall, revisit the struggles he mentioned, and remind him that I am his ally on his road to becoming a competent writer.

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Filed Under

  • Character Education
  • Social Studies
  • English Language Arts
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School