Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Plagiarism or Poor Writing Skills? Part 2

This is the second in a two part look at plagiarism. 

What can we do about a student's improper use of another's words in written assignments?  In my August 9, 2015 post, I distinguish between intentional and unintentional use of another's work and posit causes of the latter. Here I discuss strategies for detection of plagiarism and teaching about original writing.


The instructor's judgement. An instructor may quickly gain a feel for their students' writing.  A post or assignment submission containing phrases that are uncharacteristic of the student's writing, will alert the attentive teacher that a student may be plagiarizing.

Blackboard's SafeAssign. For essay type assignments the institution's learning management system (LMS) may have an integrated originality checker. 

In Blackboard this is the SafeAssign tool. During setup of the writing assignment, the SafeAssign feature (or LMS equivalent) can be enabled. 
To use Safe Assign check the box under Plagiarism tools in the assignment setup.

Turnitin Assignment. Your school may have a third party add-on to your LMS for checking student originality. Linfield College uses Turnitin as another option for faculty. In Blackboard instructors can choose to create an "assignment" with or without SafeAssign enabled. Or we can create a "Turnitin assignment."
Under Optional Settings the instructor can determine whether the student may view the report and resubmit.

These are helpful and automatic screening tools. But plagiarism detection tools are not infallible. Instructors may find examples of another's words in student submissions that passed the originality test. A recent issue of  Inside Higher Ed reported on a several-year study that suggests that the combination of the instructor's judgement and Google search produce far more accurate results than SafeAssign, Turnitin and their competitors. If you have concerns about a particular student or a particular piece of writing, try using Google to check your concern.

Teaching Writing

At many institutions faculty from all disciplines have taken on the shared responsibility for improving student writing skills. A great place to start is to use written assignments as an opportunity to revisit what we mean by original writing, paraphrasing and the effective use of quotations. Here are some strategies that may help.

  • Include guidelines for writing in your syllabus or course expectations. Expand on your institutions plagiarism policy with your own specific definitions and behavioral standards.
  • Use the features of "SafeAssign" and "Turnitin" that support self correction (allow students to see the report and make multiple submissions) favoring improvement over punishment.
  • Look for unexpected phrasing and vocabulary in student's posts.
  • Address examples of un-cited use of another's words or inappropriate quotation. Communicate with the students directly and require their work to be rewritten in their own words. 
  • Be prepared to provide direct instruction on note-taking, paraphrasing, quotation and citation to the class or individual students. Ask students to distinguish between proper and improper examples of each.

It may take a student some instruction and a couple of rewrites before s/he understands the problem and the solution. Using a combination of clear expectations, early detection and teaching strategies, we may offer students tools to become effective, original writers and avoid the severe consequences to which academic/professional integrity violations lead.

Straumsheim, C. (2015). What Is detected? News. Inside Higher Education. Retrieved on 7-30-15 from

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