A More Holistic Approach to Plagiarism

In anticipation of our upcoming November 21st student workshop on Plagiarism, I would like to focus on how integrating scaffolding and frequent low-stakes writing into the structure of a course can help to counteract plagiarism by holistically addressing the needs of students. Each and every semester, plagiarism is the most common problem cited by instructors regardless of academic field or course level taught. Although a cottage industry of subscription-based services (such as Safe Assign and Turn It In) has sprung up to facilitate the detection of plagiarism in student writing, resources for dealing with the challenge of student plagiarism before the fact are comparatively scarce.

We tend to think of and deal with student plagiarism and academic dishonesty in a moral vacuum—as if it were a prohibition whose infringement must be detected, quarantined, and automatically punished. A student “charged” with plagiarism or academic dishonesty faces the rhetoric and sanctions of criminalization, and the penalties at an instructor’s disposal for responding to plagiarism and academic dishonesty are often Draconian and retributive. We must ask ourselves: does automatically failing a student who plagiarizes or recommending a student for academic suspension actually serve to prevent the incidence of plagiarism and academic dishonesty in the classroom, or do these punitive measures merely criminalize plagiarism as a kind of unspeakable taboo in the hallowed groves of academe?  It can he helpful to think of this prohibition against plagiarism and academic dishonesty as a negative command: we are enjoining our students—who sometimes have little or no support in the form of tutors or robust writing pedagogy—to learn and master the codes and conventions of academic writing on the fly.

Promoting a classroom environment of student writing from the very first day of class can yield very fruitful results in giving students confidence in their abilities, which will in turn combat against plagiarism. As Richrad Arum and Josipa Roksa found in their landmark book Academically Adrift,

“Fifty percent of students in our sample reported that they had not taken a single course during the prior semester that require more than twenty pages of writing, and one-third had not taken one that required even forty pages of reading per week. Combining these two indicators, we found that a quarter of the students in the sample had not taken any courses that required either of these two requirements, and that only 42 percent had experienced both a reading and writing assignment of this character during the prior semester.” (71)

It seems self-evident to state that plagiarism is fundamentally a problem of students not becoming personally invested in an assignment by staking out their ownership of their own ideas and language. If we assume that Arum and Roksa’s alarming findings are broadly representative of the state of higher education in America, can we reasonably expect students who are not being given the necessary opportunities to develop proficiency in academic writing and critical thinking to be able to scrupulously apply these abstract skills in their formal assignments?

During our last faculty workshop, we discussed some of the far-reaching benefits of scaffolding course content in the context of developing plagiarism-resistant assignments. The piecemeal nature of scaffolding affords several practical advantages to instructors who wish to proactively defend against plagiarism.  Scaffolding dynamically reorients what would otherwise be a daunting, be-all and end-all final paper or project as a cumulative process consisting of several smaller assignments. It is vital for instructors to engage with the reality that plagiarism is not simply the result of “student laziness”; plagiarism is also the consequence of a crisis of confidence because students (quite naturally) feel that they cannot master academic writing. Scaffolding plays an important role in making a major assignment less intimidating by helping students overcome this fear and inertia of getting started to tackle an assignment. There is a direct inverse correlation between how much confidence students can build in these critical early stages of an assignment (when the stakes are relatively low) and how likely they will be to plagiarize the work of others on the eve of a due date.

Plagiarism will always be a perpetual problem of the classroom and scholarship. I have to imagine that, among the very first cohort admitted into Plato’s Academy for philosophical training, at least one student was surreptitiously cribbing notes under his robe. And while there will never be a fail-safe remedy or panacea for dealing with plagiarism, fostering a classroom climate of frequent writing exercises, encouraging students to write about their own heuristic learning process, and developing feedback-based learning activities can all contribute towards a more holistic understanding and approach to dealing with plagiarism. Please encourage your students to attend our November 21st student workshop on plagiarism in Namm 601A!