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While I love my profession and why I am doing it, sometimes being a new teacher can suck. But what’s important is that you learn from your mistakes.
Take the unit assessment I assigned my seniors a few weeks ago. Instead of in-class, closed-note tests, I’m trying to implement Common Core and higher-level thinking by assigning students a take-home, open-note essay (acting as an exam grade) where they explain what they learned in class and do more synthesis and analysis of the information. What I forgot is that sometimes students will only complete the bare minimum, and often in whatever “easy” way they can.
And so over half my class plagiarized in some fashion on this assessment.
Part of it is my fault. I know my assessment was not as rigorous as it ought to have been. It was mostly a collection of questions like, “In your own words, what is federalism? Where do you see it in our government structure today? Why is it important?” While I did explicitly state “in your own words” and noted that they should only be using class notes and their brains to complete the assignment, a lot chose to instead Google “what is federalism” and copy-and-paste the answer into their essay without citation nor further elaboration.
I was peeved. I really was. I graded that thing next to the computer, as I was constantly conducting Internet searches of high-flatulent phrases that made little sense in the larger context of their papers. I kept needing to take breaks to calm down, and I bothered my husband with my woes and the latest atrocities.
On the day I passed back the graded papers, I gave my students a lecture on plagiarism – what it is, why it is unethical (as if that had to be stated!), and how to properly cite. On asking my students why they thought this was OK, I got a really unexpected response: “Because this isn’t English class. I didn’t know I had to cite anything in a class that isn’t English.”
Huh? You always cite material taken from somewhere, regardless of for which class you are writing! But this concerned me deeper, as the shift to Common Core will increasingly require students to do more writing and research in non-English classes; classes they see as “not requiring citations.”
So how does one avoid plagiarism? Here are the top six lessons I learned from this recent experience:
- Front-load a lecture on plagiarism. I really did not think it was necessary. What I learned, though, is that it never hurts to spend the time when the first essay is assigned to explain what is and is not OK. During my recent lecture, I had students surprised that paraphrasing can be considered plagiarism – so I really should not have assumed that they already know this information. By front-loading, the students understand your expectations and know that you take it seriously, even in a “non-English class.”
- Ensure the rigor of your assessment. I know this first essay lacked the rigor and structure needed for students to feel confident in their answers, so they turned to the Internet for “help.” I thought students would appreciate the looser structure my prompt provided, as they could adapt it to their purposes. However, I have set up a strong structure for my second assessment and ensured that it required the students to do more than just answer questions, and I’m already seeing results in their preliminary work (it’s due later this week).
- Write for a purpose. The prompt itself needs to be purposeful and relatable to the students. Write a newspaper editorial or a letter to the editor, or write a letter to a Congressperson about a relevant issue that ought to be addressed. Write a fictional story about life without that civil liberty, and then do an in-class story-time to share out. Find current events and apply them to course material, and then spend the day it’s due discussing the stories and student analyses. Students are a lot more willing to buy in to something with an accountability piece in class (or in the wider world), and they will be more willing to respect the assignment if it is being done for more than a grade.
- Include a rubric. Creating a solid rubric takes a lot of time, but it makes the grading easier on you and the assignment more clear for the students. If the students see how they will be graded, they are less likely to plagiarize to get there.
- Utilize your colleagues. My biggest fault with this first assessment is that I did not think to first share it with some trusted teachers who can identify any potential holes or problems. They have different experiences with students, and so they can help examine the prompt through different students’ eyes. Other teachers can also ask you the difficult questions, such as what you may have done in class already to build the skill set required.
- Do not dumb it down. After that first assessment, I was close to just giving up and going to in-class, closed-note tests based on memorization – but I know my students can do so much better. I need to challenge them, and allow them the opportunity to both demonstrate their knowledge and apply it in a meaningful way. While the students themselves are less experienced with being assessed in this way, I am confident they can do it, and that it will ultimately be a more valuable experience for them.
After reflecting on the faults of my first assessment, I have created a really strong second assessment about which I am very confident. It has rigor and structure, includes a rubric, has a purpose, and I checked it with a trusted veteran colleague. It has student choice built in, and now all the students know clearly what is and is not plagiarism. All in all, the students seem to be responding to it more positively, and I’m very excited. Yet I’m sure this assessment will come with its own lessons to be learned!
What about you? What safeguards have you put in place to prevent plagiarism? What impact do you think the shift to Common Core might have on your writing assignments and how students approach them?
I look forward to hearing from you!
The New Teacher,