5 Things Teachers Need to Know When Talking to Students About Plagiarism

Talking about plagiarism, attribution and citation with students is a serious challenge. 

These are inherently nuanced issues and, often times, the best questions don’t have clear or bright line answers. Couple that with the high stakes when it comes to grades and disciplinary action, students are understandably confused, frustrated and scared.

However, that is part of why it is so important for teachers to talk about plagiarism. Real conversations about these issues can clear up the confusion, puts minds to ease and lead to better work in the classroom.

But, when having those conversations, there are things teachers need to be aware of and, in many cases, either don’t know or have lost sight of.

To that end, here are five things that teachers should keep in mind when talking to their students about plagiarism.

1: There is a Great Deal of Misinformation Out There

Like any complicated or nuanced topic, there is a great deal of misinformation on the internet and in the classroom. Much of that misinformation is innocent and is other individuals, often other students, misunderstanding the issues.

However, much of the misinformation is also very deliberate. The essay mill industry, for example, is incredibly aggressive and predatory, often appealing to students’ fears to get them to sign up

By the time a student gets to your classroom, they likely have been repeatedly lied to and misled on these issues. As such, one of the challenges instructors faces isn’t just teaching good information, it’s helping students unlearn bad information.

This is often much more difficult, especially considering many students have limited trust for teachers in this area.

2: It’s Possible Students Have Never Been Taught Citation

Students don’t enter school automatically knowing how to attribute and cite work, in particular in an academic setting. If no one teaches them, then they simply don’t know how to do it.

However, for one reason or another, a surprisingly large number of students fall through the cracks on this topic. Many make it all the way to postgraduate work without a true understanding of citation.

Teachers at all levels need to be prepared for the very real possibility that their students may not understand citation, may never have been formally taught it, and have only skated by on these issues due to loose grading practices.

Teachers need to be open that students, at almost any level, might not have a robust understanding of citation and could need remedial help to get caught back up.

3: Students Are Scared

For decades now, schools at all levels have been presenting a heavy hand when dealing with plagiarism. Part of that has been playing up the harsh punishments that students can receive for committing plagiarism.

As a result, many students are afraid that even an honest mistake can completely tank their academic career. 

Students need to know the truth, that it’s generally easy to tell the difference between intentional plagiarism, namely cheating, and accidental plagiarism. They need to know that the two are handled very differently and that, while cheating will not be tolerated, innocent mistakes can be rectified.

Also, make it clear that students can come to you or those in your school’s writing lab if they have any questions regarding what should be cited and how to cite it. Eliminating fear is a big part of engaging with students on this topic.

4: There Are Cultural Differences

To be clear, there is no culture where plagiarism is universally accepted or seen as a positive. If you ask students whether they approve of plagiarism, the answer is almost universally no.

However, there are differences in the standards of citations. Some may not see a particular act as plagiarism, though it is judged as to be one in western academia. This can include differences in when citation is required, how it should be given and why.

Though it’s easy to think of these differences as being a challenge for international students, all students can face them. Students used to writing exclusively in a more casual environment may run into similar issues.

In short, students’ backgrounds may lead them to hold very different standards of citation than you would normally expect. As such, it’s important to explain the standards that you will hold them to and why those standards are chosen.

5: The Problem May Actually Be Their Writing

One of the biggest issues students have when it comes to citation may not be their understanding of citation, but their writing process.

I’ve talked repeatedly about the need for students to learn about how to write in a cleanroom environment and how to work citation into their writing, not their editing, process. 

Students often times misunderstand when they should site sources, how proper paraphrasing works and when they should be adding quotes to their papers. These are all functions of their writing process and something that many students never learned.

As such, teaching proper citation and attribution is important, but it may need to be paired with lessons on how to write a paper properly.

Bottom Line

Talking with your students about plagiarism is a daunting task. It’s a gray area issue that students are, understandably, very afraid of and may lack many of the skills they need to approach it.

However, if you approach it in good faith, focus on trying to educate students rather than scare them, and show that this is a cooperative effort, you may be surprised how many students come along with you.

While we can’t stop every student from plagiarizing, using an essay mill or otherwise cheating, we can stop nearly all the cases of accidental plagiarism. 

It may seem like a small thing, but it would greatly mitigate the fear around plagiarism, ensure that only bad actors are caught and help all students get a greater understanding of the academic writing process. Test.

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