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Working to Outsmart Plagiarism

posted Aug 26, 2019, 12:48 AM by HSD Principal
If you are anything like most teachers, you have struggled with how to effectively teach students proper use of external sources - and then monitor how well they are doing. Amy Cavanaugh wrote about her experiences trying to work with a generation for whom sharing information is second nature. The whole article is behind a paywall, but here is a relevant anecdote from Kim Marshall:

Early in her career, Cavanaugh assigned the following essay prompt as her class read To Kill a Mockingbird: “What does the mockingbird symbolize in the novel?” Students who Googled “mockingbird symbolism” found a wealth of information: other kids’ essays on that exact topic, a comprehensive SparkNotes analysis with cited evidence, and impressive critical articles by scholars who had thought through the question and come up with top-notch answers. Teachers can’t expect students to ignore such a treasure trove of material, says Cavanaugh: “When the questions that are proposed ask them to regurgitate the ideas of those that came before them, we can guess what the outcome will be…”

One student said to her, “It’s just a matter of working smarter, not harder. If the answer is out there, it’s kinda dumb not to look.” But there’s a big downside: “Students often work harder to avoid getting caught ‘stealing’ ideas than they do thinking meaningfully about the question, or even about the answers they find, and they don’t have opportunities to improve.” Clearly, mockingbird symbolism-type essay questions are a problem and don’t advance the deeper mission of the English curriculum. 

Cavanaugh decided to take a different approach, making “the devil into my ally”: she asked students to do an Internet search for credible material on that question, analyze and evaluate the reasoning, and defend, qualify, or refute what they found. “This assignment,” she says, “requires the same kind of literary analysis, but minimizes the incentive to plagiarize and better acquaints students with using outside sources effectively.” She tries to orchestrate assignments and discussions that aren’t “busywork.”

As you evaluate your courses, are there "What does the mockingbird symbolize?" type assessments? If so, how could you modify them so that students are expected to refer to sources, but also required to evaluate them and integrate them into their own learning?

“Cultivating Critical Thought in the Gen-Z Culture of Sharing” by Amy Cavanaugh in English Journal, July 2019 (Vol. 108, #6, pp. 32-38)
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