Thursday, February 11, 2010

When Plagiarism Rears its Ugly Head

About seven of my writing students from last semester descended on my office in a group the other day wanting to know if I could change their final grades. They didn’t even speak up for themselves; they had elected one of the best students in the class as their spokesman. It was a striking instance of collectivism at work. I told them to come back later and I would discuss each of their papers with them individually. A couple hours later they came back in groups of 2s or 3s, still with an elected spokesman.

Two of the girls wanted to know why I had given them zeros. I told them that they had submitted fantastic essays – but, unfortunately, they hadn’t written them. To test them, I asked each of them to orally summarize their main points. They stumbled, muttered, giggled and looked at each other for help. They couldn’t do it. I switched tactics and pointed to specific words in their essays and asked them to define them. More stumbling, muttering and giggling ensued. Then, right in front of them, I entered some random lines from their essays into Google and showed them how their exact text appeared on a website. Isn’t that remarkable? They left wide-eyed and even more speechless than before. Yes, that is why you are both getting zeros. I hope you learned something.

While I had seen hints of plagiarism with my writing students last semester, it wasn’t a huge problem because most of the time I would read their drafts and they would have a chance to rewrite before submitting their final papers. It was disappointing when students skipped the first and second drafts and just handed in a plagiarized final paper (like the girls I just mentioned), but it was nowhere near the heartbreak I felt when I graded the final essays from my Cross Cultural Understanding students. It was so devastating that for a long time I just felt anger. In fact, I still get really worked up whenever I talk to someone about it.

I had loved teaching CCU. We had lively classes with animated discussions and the students really opened up to me in their weekly in-class journals. We covered topics like the culture iceberg, individualism and collectivism, stereotypes, body language and non-verbal communication, dating customs, and classroom behavior. For their final assignment they had to write 3-5 pages on one of the following three topics to demonstrate what they had learned in my class: a) How has your understanding of culture changed since the first day of class? What insights have you gained? b) Describe a cultural misunderstanding you had. Can you explain what went wrong? c) Compare and contrast American and Indonesian culture in at least 3 different ways.

I expected to receive organized, reflective short papers in an academic format on material we had covered in class. What I got instead was a dismaying collection of hastily written or copied essays that often had nothing to do with class. They wrote about literature, architecture, economics, technology, food, American holidays and, bizarrely, driving. They gave me papers with so many spelling mistakes and/or Indonesian words that I had a hard time reading them. They gave me papers copied verbatim from class handouts, from the internet and from each other. Two students even gave me the same exact essay comparing the U.S. to Japan. I was flabbergasted. As for organization, many papers had none at all. They had missing titles, introductions that did not relate the body of the paper, missing conclusions, and no demonstrated knowledge of paragraph construction. There were papers that were no more than a collection of bullet points; some were mere lists of keywords. There were also papers that were stapled together out of order. It was an absolute nightmare – these were supposed to be university students? I was angry at their sloppy work and academic dishonesty.

But perhaps in the end it was not my students who learned the biggest lesson in cross cultural difference here, but me. I had assumed that students in their third semester at university would know how to write a simple 3-5 page reflective essay on what they learned in class. I had assumed a general knowledge of essay organization, despite the fact that this wasn’t a writing class. I had assumed that students would write original reactions to class material, as they did in their journal entries. I had assumed that the description of the assignment on the syllabus and my in-class instructions would be enough. Clearly, I had assumed wrong. The big lesson I learned is that my Indonesian university students need a lot more scaffolding and guidance in their academic work – and less opportunity to cheat. Maybe I should have given them a timed in-class essay or a test. Maybe I should have turned the CCU class into a quasi writing class and had them submit multiple drafts. Maybe I should have given them an entire lesson on what plagiarism is and how to paraphrase. I’m not sure exactly what I could have done, but this paper assignment was a real eye-opener - I had to give zeros to 41% of my beloved CCU students.


  1. This happens all the time at my high school! The first time they had me read through some final papers, I was shocked. I did the same thing: asked them to define words in the paper, summarize the main point, etc. I'm glad you're giving them zeros! My teachers mostly just tell them to redo it or give them something like a D. And then THESE students will go to a university and be like YOUR students. Ugh! PS- I love how often you update your blog. You're my role model.

  2. Thanks, Katie!! I'm honored to be your role model ;-). And yes, we totally need to stop this problem at the high school level before these students reach university. I couldn't agree more.

  3. Reading this made me so angry. Not at you, not at your students, but at the memory of how many times things like this have happened in my classes. This post touched a nerve! Ouch. A very good post.

    Did I mention in any emails a professor I've had 3 times at DePaul? Joint appointment in the History and Education departments. In all his classes, even for MA students, he provided a lot of scaffolding, and for the class that included undergrads we spent parts of 4 classes over 3 weeks on the final paper. For each phase, he had time limits, rubrics, assigned peer review groups, and feedback sheets that had to be filled in by students and given to him. Lots of students complained, but as a teacher I was amazed by his system. It maximized benefits to students and minimized scut work for teachers.

  4. In the first phase, we had to bring 3 possible topics and at the end of 45-minutes we each had 3 good thesis statements. This was done as a class with students and professor giving feedback on each student's theses.

    A week later, we had to bring about half a dozen topics, and after 15 minutes in 4-student peer review, we had to come up with about half a dozen good topic sentences in the right order, and at least two of these had to take the con-side to our theses. We had rubrics for all this.

    In the 3rd class, we had to come with complete introductions and conclusions and also a list of subpoints for each of the topic sentences (the subpoints could, during the writing phase, either become intra-paragraph support or topic sentences in their own right for multi-paragraph ideas). This took 20 minutes, I think.

    The 4th class had to have complete rough drafts. He gave us a rubric for intro, thesis, topic sentences, logical organization, objection and rebuttal, conclusion, etc. We graded each other's papers quickly and saw where we needed to do emergency repair for the final draft.

    And a week later, we finally handed in the papers. As he said at the beginning, "I know almost all of you will complete the final draft in the hour before it's due, but this guarantees that you'll at least have thought about it and worked on it for a couple of hours before that."

    All the students were native speakers, and even after all this work, quite a few papers (even by grad students soon to be high school teachers) were truly bad, but they were far better than they'd otherwise have been.

    The best thing is that all this scaffolding made very extra work for the prof, beyond the design and tweaking of the rubrics and the recording of participation grades.

    If you're interested, I can put you in touch with him. I'm sure he'd be willing to share the rubrics and class materials he uses for this. I've used versions of them in my ESL classes, and it's helped immensely (but not, alas, completely!).

  5. William, thanks so much for the great example of how to integrate more scaffolding into my courses. I'll keep this in mind as I put together my new writing syllabus this week.

  6. Thanks should go to my prof James Wolfinger. All his ideas.

  7. What a situation! It's interesting that you were the one to come away with the lesson in cross-cultural understanding. Even in Korea, I find that I'm constantly having to reassess what can be considered "common knowledge" - and to be careful to avoid blaming my students for MY ignorance. Yikes.