Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Preventing Plagiarism, Part II: High Supervision

In the last post, I began to describe one CUA faculty member's approach to preventing plagiarism. You'll recall that in a recent workshop on the topic, he argued that an effective approach involves both high cost and high supervision. The last post covered "high cost;" this time, I'll address "high supervision."

[N. B. In reviewing the presentation notes, I remembered a third component, "high motivation." I'll address that topic next time, and I've edited last week's post to correct the oversight.]

The cost of plagiarizing at CUA is high, but cost alone is not enough to prevent students from cheating. Students also need high supervision. In this case, "supervision" doesn't mean assigning proctors to watch students as they conduct research and write their essays. Treating college students like elementary school children won't solve anything. "Supervision" has two different meanings here. On the negative side, it means letting students know that you are aware that plagiarism occurs and that you are on the alert for it. Teachers can convey this message in any number of ways: they can set aside some class time to discuss the issue and how they plan to respond to suspected cases, or they can require students to submit papers through a plagiarism-detection service like Turnitin, to name just two.

On the positive side, "supervision" means checking in with students at multiple points in the paper-writing process, giving them an opportunity to ask questions and receive feedback (so that they don't feel like the only time they get feedback is when it's too late to act on it), and giving the teacher the opportunity to assess the student's motivation and progress, and to catch potential problems early. For example, the workshop presenter requires his students to submit a prospectus early in the semester stating the question or topic they wish to investigate, why they are interested in the project, and what they expect to learn from it. Later in the semester he meets with students to discuss the state of their research so far, and a few weeks before the final paper is due, he either has them turn in a rough draft or gives them an opportunity in class to pair off and evaluate each other's drafts.

High supervision helps prevent plagiarism by directly addressing some of its most common causes. Discussing school policies in class helps counter the perception that plagiarism is easy to get away with (although it doesn't eliminate the temptation). Breaking papers down into smaller assignments can ease the performance anxiety that many students feel when they perceive an assignment to be "high stakes" (many students perceive all written assignments--whether they're worth 10% or 50% of the final grade--as "high stakes"). It also encourages students to begin the writing and research processes early, reducing the number of cases that result from poor time management. Requiring students to meet with you in person reduces plagiarism because it helps students get to know you, and some students who wouldn't think twice about plargiarizing a paper in a class in which they are just another face will find it more difficult to do so if they feel they have some level of relationship with the teacher.

High cost and high supervision together have been shown to reduce plagiarism (Notice I didn't say "eliminate." I'm not as optimistic as the presenter--I think that some students will plagiarize no matter how I adapt my course and my teaching methods. We'll get to that one next time or in a fourth installment.), but there's a third component to the formula: high motivation. That will be the subject for the next post. In the meantime, I'll leave you with some thoughts about the pros and cons of the "high supervision" approach the presenter recommended:

Reasons I would adopt this strategy:

1. It would make me a better teacher/give me more opportunities to teach. For me, at least, teaching is more than a job. It's a calling, and therefore a large part of my identity. My desire is not just to impart content to my students--it's to cultivate in them the desire to learn, and to give them the skills they need to do so. Teaching them about the writing process, as opposed to focusing narrowly on the completion of the assignment, is appealing, because it's the kind of lesson that can be applied to all my students' courses, and I'm not one to assume that someone else will have covered it.

2. Building off the first point, it would give me more opportunities to get to know my students and their interests, and to steer them toward programs and resources that would help them achieve their academic and professional goals. I had one or two professors who invested in me in this way, and their mentoring played a large role in my decision to pursue graduate studies and teach.

3. Anything that reduces plagiarism reduces my own stress. An ounce of prevention...

Reasons I would not adopt this strategy:

1. It is completely impractical in my current situation. I have 33 students, each of whom is required to write 3 papers for this course--and since I didn't set that requirement, I can't change it (the only thing I can do is set the details of the assignments). That's 99 papers per semester. I am also part-time faculty, sharing an office with 6 other part-timers, which means I get the office for 3 hours a week. There's no time to meet with each of my students individually once, let alone multiple times per semester. And while I have made it clear to my students that I will happily review rough drafts, I don't have time for more than a quick assessment of those that I do receive. It seems ridiculous to double or triple my workload in the hopes of preventing one or two cases of plagiarism.

2. Other strategies--such as taking the time to create "plagiarism-resistant" assignments (e.g., assignments that are course-specific, require students to compare multiple texts, and/or interact with or build off of class discussion)--reduce plagiarism without creating extra work for me during the semester.

My overall assessment: this strategy is good for a course in which students write one big paper, but isn't really practical in my situation.

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