Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Turning plagiarism into a teachable moment

Our reader Matt Pianalto writes me about a recent case of plagiarism and a response he's considering. Matt wonders: Is this too soft a response to plagiarism?

So, a week into my semester I’ve had a case of admitted plagiarism on a one page (!) assignment. In the past at other schools, I’ve been completely zero-tolerance, and have automatically failed people for just this. I know some people talk about “teachable moments,” and for some incomprehensible reason I am feeling slightly less heartless in this case. As I pointed out to the student, the stupidity of his act goes beyond what he did but also concerns WHAT assignment he plagiarized. The students were asked to figure out what Socrates could mean by saying that a good person can’t be harmed. Of course, the implicit view informing Socrates’ statement is that the sort of harm he sees as truly bad is harm to the “soul,” and that the only person who can harm one’s soul is oneself, by doing wrong. (Say, by knowingly plagiarizing your philosophy homework…)

So instead of kicking this student out of class, with an F, I’m thinking about requiring this student to read some related parts of the Republic (Books I, II, and IX), and to relate all of this, as well as the in-class reading (the Apology and the Crito), to his case, in the form of a substantive paper (much more work than the original assignment, and for no credit. But if the assignment isn’t done to my satisfaction, the student fails). My topic idea is something like, why is Socrates right that it’s better to be caught doing wrong than to get away with it? This is somewhat pedantic, but could be eye-opening for the student. The student will also be required to prove that at least one visit was paid to the Writing Center. It’s also a pain in my butt, but a more interesting pain than all the paperwork I’ve already had to complete. I guess I’m a little worried, however, that I’ve “gone soft” by even thinking of giving the student this opportunity. My policy simply says that my “default” sanction for academic dishonesty is an F for the course, so I’m operating within the realm of stated possibilities in my syllabus. Maybe I should only do this if I’m willing to do it every time (even if the violation doesn’t involve readings of Plato). Is it worth it?

What say you ISW readers?


  1. Matt,

    As you know, the answer here is -- as always -- "it depends".

    On the one hand, I think it is a good idea (a laudable one on your part) insofar as it gives the student a choice to fail or to take on a substantially harder assignment that might actually teach the student why his/her offense was wrong. There is something admirable in using plagiarism as a teaching moment and not just an instance that requires mere punishment.

    On the other hand, the larger issue here regards policy. Will you make this an actual part of your policy towards plagiarism? What will you do if five more people plagiarize in this class? The same thing?

    This is, of course, a perennial issue in teaching, because we are driven by two masters: (a) the desire to adapt to the concrete needs of a particular situation creatively (as you are doing here) and (b) the need to apply the same policies to everyone in the interests of fairness.

    One potential problem (and just one) is this: if you make it a policy, it might actually make the temptation to plagiarize even more enticing, given that now "failing the course" is not really possible, since you can always choose the other assignment. With that in mind, the risk/reward ratio tilts.

    In addition, there's the question of all the extra work for you if more people plagiarize.

  2. I'm a long-time reader of ISW, but have only commented a few times (in the distant past). I'm a TA at a Research-1 university in the Midwest, too.

    For plagiarism on major assignments, such as a term paper, my automatic response is to fail them for the assignment, and depending whether or not certain exacerbating circumstances obtain, I reserve the option of failing them for the course. Typically, the exacerbating circumstances do obtain, so I deploy this major penalty and fail plagiarizers for the course more often than not. But it's nice to leave oneself a little bit of flexibility in handing out penalties. Here, I wouldn't be inclined to allow them any chance at a do-over, because I think they should know better than to cheat on a major assignment.

    I share Chris Panza's worry about grading lots of extra papers, and I doubt that a plagiarizer would learn anything from an extra assignment, no matter how well-intentioned the instructor was in giving that assignment out, because I think that the student has adequately demonstrated that they are not interested in learning. They are just there to get a grade. So I don't give out no-credit assignments.

    But I recognize the importance of the teachable moment, so here's my strategy: separate the teachable moment from the coursework. In each case, I always meet with the student and allow them to (attempt to) explain to me why they cheated. There is usually a sob story attached, which I do feel like I need to hear just in case the student was really in some sort of dire straits and needed help. But their stories are almost without exception not any good, and I wind up explaining to them that the trouble they are in is their own fault, that their behavior has been unacceptable, that their explanation does not excuse their behavior, and that cheating is just as deplorable in the academic world as in the real world, if not more so.

    I think the same tactic might be applied successfully to the case in the original post. I would be especially interested to hear why the student felt it necessary to cheat on a minor assignment, because I am very tempted to think that such a person would absolutely cheat on a major assignment. If their threshold for cheating was low enough that they would do it for a minor assignment, I think they would much more easily succumb to the temptation of cheating on a major assignment.

    Depending on the explanation the student gave me, I would either fail them for the assignment or fail them for the course. I would do the former if I got the sense that the student was taking responsibility for the mistake (although this would come with a warning that further cases of plagiarism would come with an automatic fail for the course). I would do the latter if I got the sense that the student didn't take the mistake seriously and was only in my class to squeak by with a grade.

    I apologize for the length of my comment, but I hope Matt finds this feedback useful.

  3. Chris & Anon: Thanks.

    Chris: I'm worried about precedent, too, but this is the first case I've had of (major) plagiarism in at least two years. My assignments make it hard to cut and paste (usually). As for grading, I can read a paper and decide whether it's satisfactory without too much bloodshed.

    Anon: I share your worries about whether this approach is a lost cause. (Does asking someone to do MORE work who's shown a willingness to cheat on less make sense?)

    As for story, there was no sob. The student was informed that we need to talk (in response to, "I didn't get my paper back,") and I got a confession via e-mail about three hours later. So, at the very least, this student didn't try to push the attempt at deception any further. I really have no reason to feel sorry for this student. It just bothers me that there's nothing to be done if I just kick the student out of class with an F (I think a mere 0 on a small assignment is too wimpy a sanction myself); the only thing stopping the student from trying again is the knowledge that this violation will be on the record. So I still feel ambivalent, but I guess am in the mood for an experiment. That's not a very strong justification, but I have the sense that sometimes we don't know what will work until we try it. The prediction of anon--which I fear might be true--might, after all, be wrong. Maybe I'm being too hopeful that something (or someone) can change. Meh.

  4. I can see how the assignment might help -- but, you still have a trust problem with this student. So, you need to decide how to have the student assure you that their future work isn't plagarized.

    Also, unless this is a first-semester freshman, it's possible that they've done it before. If you can check with the dean of students or whomever would process a formal complaint, you'll have enough information to make a better decision.

  5. Matt, I really appreciate your desire to turn this into an opportunity for a teachable moment. I think one mistake we make in dealing with plagiarism is to enforce our policies without really justifying them or helping our students understand the intellectual and moral values that inform the policies. Perhaps a discussion with your class about why plagiarism is an academic sin would be appropriate? You write:

    the only thing stopping the student from trying again is the knowledge that this violation will be on the record.

    Is it a totally vain hope that convincing that student (and others) why they shouldn't plagiarize might keep them from repeating it in the future?

    A side note: I once had a student plagiarize my own work (my suicide article in the Stanford Encyclopedia). It was an interesting exercise to be the aggrieved party and the instructor. It helped me think through why exactly we condemn plagiarism in the first place.

  6. Matt,

    A large part of my concern actually didn't focus on the actual work involved (you may have few cases) but rather on how you would formally present the policy to your students (in the syllabus and in speaking to them).

    If you _say_ that there's the option between the assignment and failure, then that might have some bad and unintended consequences (as I suggested above).

  7. Chris: Yes, I think for now I'll be sticking with my "default is an F" language. This student seems willing to "play"--has been coming to class, actively participating. So I'm hopeful for the "experiment." I'm operating on the assumption that this won't be a more frequent occurrence at my new school than past places, given that my assignments are similar. If that's wrong, I'll have to re-think this.

    Michael: that's a great (but terrible) story. I hope it's not totally vain to hope. The difficulty with dealing with academic dishonesty is that there are cases, and there are cases. While the intent to deceive is, in some way, the same in all cases, there's surely a relevant difference between the student who plagiarizes as an act of desperation (and again, whether that's the result of procrastination or incomprehension), and the person who just goes "all Thrasymachus" on us.

    This assignment has some phases (mandatory visits with me and the writing center) built in, and I've encouraged the student to meet with me to draw up a plan/schedule. So maybe that's where some positive learning can occur--just in learning how to map some project out, so one isn't left grasping at straws (and the CTRL+C keys) at the last moment.

  8. I'm surprised how often instructors consider an adequate punishment for plagiarism to be either a) failure of the plagiarized assignment or b) failure of the course. Sorry to be provocative, but I think that these instructors bear a good deal of the blame for the plagiarism epidemic!

    To explain: while I was living in the UK, a fellow Canadian came to visit and we both had a laugh at the following official notice at the train station: "Anyone caught riding the trains without a valid ticket will be made to pay the full fare". I take it the joke is obvious: the effectiveness of such a punishment, under normal circumstances, would be nonexistent. The best strategy for anyone who doesn't have an adequate desire to support the train system is clearly not to buy a ticket and then pay the 'penalty', once in a blue moon, of having to pay the regular fare. I say under normal circumstances, since there might in that case be a 'shame' effect, which would be particularly pronounced among Brits (in fact, some posters reminding train-riders of the policy seemed to play up that angle).

    I take it that the plagiarism case is almost identical, except that the shame effect is considerably played down. Consider:

    1) Student X is not particularly honest, and wants a good grade in Philosophy. He hasn't done any of the readings, and doesn't want to bother to put in any work, or to get help. A day before the assignment is due, he realizes that he is going to fail. So he plagiarizes, recognizing that the worst that can happen is that he'll be caught and given the failing grade for the assignment he was going to get anyway. Besides, the instructor will not tell his peers about it. So what does he have to lose?

    2) Student Y is in a similar position, except that she has goofed around so much during the term, and missed so many classes, that she's on the verge of failing the course (none of this seems too uncommon). She has just a couple of days to write her final essay, on which she needs 60% or better if she is to pass the course. She knows she won't earn 60% or better, since she was skipping or playing solitaire through almost all the classes. So should she buy a paper from the internet? Odds are, she won't get caught (her past experience has taught her that); and if she does, the worst that will happen is that she'll fail the course. And if she doesn't buy the paper from the internet, she'll definitely fail the course. The fact that the instructor will know that she plagiarized doesn't bother her: she doesn't care about the instructor, and besides, it's either that or the instructor knowing that she doesn't understand the material or didn't do the work. So clearly, her best strategy is to plagiarize.

    Clearly, then, merely failing students on an assignment or the course in response to plagiarism encourages that sort of activity among the less-than-honest students who don't work hard (of which there are many). And when more honest students see that they are working alongside the plagiarizers motivated by slack punishers, it becomes much more reasonable for them to as well (it begins to seem unfair to them that they should have to do all the work while their classmates do none of it and still get good grades).

    For these reasons, I always report plagiarizing students to the dean and always push for their suspension or expulsion, depending on whether or not it is a first offense. I announce this plainly at the start of each class, and have been thanked privately by a number of students for taking a hard line to curtail this sort of nonsense. I take that to be necessary for the above reasons. Am I missing something? If so, then what, please?

  9. Justin: thanks. There are days when I totally agree. Hard to say how my little experiment is going yet, except that the student is still (actually) coming to class and participating...

  10. A little bit late to post, but I wanted to comment that I think the way you're responding to this student's action is quite inspiring.

    A lot of people (yourself included) are worried about precedent. But in fact, this sets no precedent! For the action of "plagiarizing because I know I'll be able to make it up by writing a paper about why getting caught is good" is quite a different action than "plagiarizing because it's easier than writing my own material." The student in question did the latter, and you're responding to it in an inspired way. Someone who performs the _former_ action, on the other hand, can't be responded to in the same way. If there's an inspiring way to respond to them, it's not going to involve anything like what you did with this student. (And you're under no obligation to inspire under these circumstances anyway. That's ideal but supererogatory, but it's not part of your job description or your implied contract with the students.)

    Of course all of this means the policy of giving this "why getting caught is good" paper to plagiarizers would have to be a secret policy. Publicizing it would undermine its usefulness. And once you've done it with one student, you might get other students trying to take advantage of you. But the response is "Look, that first student tried to lie to me about his work. You, on the other hand, tried to take advantage of my generosity. You didn't even care if I was fooled. You just wanted a different assignment. That's an entirely different act, calling for an entirely different response."

    Hey, maybe make them write a paper about that, somehow. Give them a really difficult relevant technical contemporary text in the philosophy of Action. Let them learn from that. ;)

  11. ANONYMOUS #46

    I think that whether to use the "teachable moment" strategy must rely on the individual student. If you assess the student to have the ability to learn from their mistakes, if you know that the problem causing the cheating wasn't lack of skillfulness in reading, writing, or thinking (in which, if possible clearing up the deficit should clear up the problem)...then I would say go for it.


    I would like to reply from my perspective regarding my own student days. There is NO sob-story, there is NO excuse, and no tragedy that excuses plagiarism.

    If a student runs into tragedy, severe health issues, protracted death of family member or any other severe problem, they have plenty of other options. They already know that they can ask for an extension on individual assignments, they can ask for a course incomplete to finish in the next semester, and if worst comes to worst, they can apply for an exceptional withdrawal from the class.

    I had severe health problems the whole time that I was working towards my degree. I had kind professors willing to grant me extensions, and on a few occasions, an incomplete, but I never plagiarized, nor was I ever tempted to.

    The sobs stories are only excuses. The students may feel truly desperate if they lack the necessary reading and writing skills and chose plagiarism out of confused desperation, and even more so if they do run into personal problems. The real problem though is that the student chose to use the "easy way out" instead of learning the skills they lacked.

    Maybe if there is some way to get them to work really hard on whatever first paper/assignment they are given, to really care about it deeply, and then after it is over, to imagine someone else stealing what they worked so hard for.

    Most of these students would not steal money, would not steal another's personal belongings, yet they think nothing of stealing those things that most make us who we are, the ideas, thoughts, and expressions of another human being. I do not get it.


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