Why Do Students Not Understand Plagiarism?

Sometimes Why is the most difficult question...

Classroom ImageIn a recent post for the WriteCheck blog, I took a look at research by Dr. Lee Adam from the University of Otago.

Dr. Adam found that of some 21 undergraduates that she surveyed, most students were aware of plagiarism and against it, but did not fully understand the concept, especially with unintentional plagiarism.

The issue, according to Dr. Adam, was a disconnect with the function of academic writing. Students felt that their writing was an attempt to merely show what they know, not expand knowledge.

This research was mirrored in other reports, such as one by the Office of the Independent Adjudicator in the UK that found, of the students disciplined for plagiarism, many did not have a firm understanding of the rules.

This research indicates that many students do not understand plagiarism, at least not well enough to write in an academic environment.

But why is that? Why do so many students make it to high school and college without an understanding of the basic rules of citation?

The reason is complicated, but it comes down to the fact many students were simply not taught it or held accountable to it.

The result is often that students find themselves in over their heads on the subject and end up making mistakes that can harm their academic career.

Of Plagiarism and Paragraph Breaks

Writing PhotoImagine, for a moment, that you made it through your academic career to this point without ever learning about paragraph breaks.

You’d mastered writing and grammar. You knew how to write sentences and to punctuate your work, but never learned about the nuance of adding paragraphs to your work.

Then, one day, you find yourself in a class that takes paragraph breaks extremely seriously. In fact, if you fail to add proper breaks, you risk failing the class or evening being disciplined for cheating. When you seek help, the instructor and even your school simply say, “You should have learned this before now.”

How long until you face punishment for an inappropriate paragraph break?

This is a pretty outrageous scenario. Obviously virtually every one with any mastery of English will have been taught paragraph breaks and no one is facing expulsion for messing one up.

But for some, that’s how it feels when they are dealing with citation.

The problem, simply put, is that many students either received inadequate or no training on citation coming up through school and, when they hit either late high school or early college, find themselves tasked with something that they are unprepared for.

However, failing this task doesn’t result in a bad grade, it results in disciplinary action.

As such, it’s crucial that students get a firm grasp of citation before they are held to it and the key to doing that may be starting education about citation earlier.

How Soon is Too Soon for Citation?

Citation is a complex and nuanced subject that requires time and practice to truly master. However, schools often don’t even begin really approaching the subject of citation until students are already writing complex essays.

But that may be far later than necessary as research shows that it may be possible to begin those conversations much earlier.

A Yale study in 2010 found that children as young as five readily grasp the concept of plagiarism and the ethics of claiming something that is not yours. While we can’t expect five-year-olds to grasp the nuances of MLA, APA and Chicago styles, it opens the door to basic conversations about about citation as children are learning to write.

Theoretically, those citation conversations can morph into dialog about proper quoting and then more formal citation standards.

While it may seem insane to teach students about citation as they are still grasping the fundamentals of the language, the problem is that many students never get exposed to it in any meaningful way. They go from being “too young” to “should already know this” without receiving adequate instruction.

Those students often then go to college and find themselves woefully unprepared for writing in that environment.

Advice for Colleges

Even if every school in the world woke up to this issue and began citation education earlier, it wouldn’t change the fact that universities, for the foreseeable future, will be faced with ill-prepared students.

Unfortunately, many schools aren’t ready for this and have plagiarism enforcement strategies that solely look at the issue from a cheating perspective.

But while plagiarism due to cheating and negligence certainly does happen and needs to be treated harshly, treating the ill-prepared student like a cheater only serves to punish students for the things they never had the chance to learn.

Colleges need to be prepared for these cases and funnel them down a different path than the mere cheaters. In these cases, the plagiarism isn’t a call for punishment, but a call for education.

To that end, here’s the steps such a process would involve:

  1. Offer Plagiarism-Related Resources: While introduction to university courses and online plagiarism policies can not replace great citation instruction, they are an important first step, especially if coupled with an advance offer for remedial help in citation. This can help educate and funnel needy students to such programs before there is a problem.
  2. Spot Those In Need of Help: Faculty and staff need to learn how to spot cases of plagiarism that aren’t mere cheating or laziness and find students who are in trouble. The most common sign is a student that attempts to cite but fails do so adequately, such as with poor paraphrasing or citation formatting.
  3. Offer Remedial Programs for Those Students: Most universities offer remedial programs for students that struggle in writing, math or other subjects, but not in citation. Creating a program that takes those who were underserved in their citation education and brings them up to speed can avoid many disciplinary actions.
  4. Offer Students Chance to Undo the Damage: Students will need motivation to complete the remedial course and one of the best ways is, similar to a defensive driving course, offer them the chance to complete the course in exchange for removing the strike against them.
  5. Follow Up To Make Sure There Are No Issues: Finally, the school needs to follow the student and ensure that there are no further problems, checking back in after a period of time with both the student and their instructors.

Schools should also give special considerations to students that will likely need additional help. ESL students, remedial English students, etc. will likely need additional help with citation. In those cases, citation instruction should be incorporated into remedial coursework.

After all, if a school is willing to help students learn how to write at a college level, they should also help the student learn to cite at a college level.

One Other Question

Finally, one of the bigger questions that came from Dr. Adam’s work was the issue of the purpose of student writing. Students, according to her study, believe that their essays are intended to show what they know while their instructors view it as academic writing, which is meant to expand human knowledge and though.

This raises a simple question: Could the students be right?

Many essays really are just means of trying to get students to show what they learned. Most student assignments don’t advance human knowledge in any way. A student can go through his entire academic career and never write a single essay that breaks any meaningful new ground.

But while the essays may not expand human knowledge, they do expand the student’s knowledge. The research and critical thinking don’t just serve as a metric to show what a student knows, but as a means to improve student knowledge.

In short, it’s not a test of student knowledge, but a teaching tool unto itself.

Students, however, won’t realize that nor do they realize the importance that writing will likely play in their lives, regardless of career path. Impressing on these points, rather than simply insisting on originality for originality’s sake, may help deter at least some plagiarists from copying.

After all, if students understand why originality and citation is expected of them, they’re more likely to do it than if they are simply threatened with punishment for failing to do so.

Bottom Line

Why don’t many students understand plagiarism? It’s simply because they were never taught citation. Caught between instructors who thought it was “too early” or “too late” to teach citation, they never really learned the art and never had its importance impressed upon them.

The fact of the matter is this: Citation is not a separate skill from writing. It’s a core part of the writing process. Knowing when and how to incorporate the words and ideas of others into your writing is a fundamental skill of using the language.

Unfortunately, that’s not how many students are taught it and, by the time they really confront it, they risk being held accountable to it in a way students aren’t held accountable for other skills.

Luckily though, there are ways schools at all levels can address this issue. If they do, there might be a lot fewer underprepared students before academic tribunals and a lot fewer cases of students being expelled or suspended from school when they simply didn’t know what they were doing wrong.

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