Monday, March 21, 2011

Preventing Plagiarism, Part III: High Motivation

So far I've addressed two of the three components of the "plagiarism prevention plan" presented at last month's faculty workshop. This week I'll discuss the third component: high motivation.

The theory is simple: the more motivated your students are, the more interested they will be in the content of your course, and the more likely they will be to complete the assignments themselves. They will want to learn, and they will realize at some level that plagiarism shortcuts the learning process.

Motivating students comes down to making them want to attend your class, and there are a variety of ways to accomplish this, some of which take more planning and effort than others. For example, teachers can (I would say "should") look for ways to connect course content to current events and issues and to individual student's interests. They can also include opening questions or interactive exercises (I like small group discussions and learning "games") that get students thinking about issues raised by the text from different angles. Being flexible enough to adapt your lesson plans and syllabus to address questions that students raise in class goes a long way toward improving motivation, too; for example, I made room last week for us to read an early martyr story because the students were obviously interested in the topic and it related to issues that had been raised in previous classes. The discussion was exceptionally good that day, so the adjustment paid off.

The workshop presenter concluded that high motivation was the most important of the three factors, but I'm not so sure. I kept thinking back to the plagiarism case I had last year and wondering if implementing any of these strategies could have prevented the situation. The student in question was undeniably the most motivated and interested student in the class. He always arrived early, dominated class discussions, and asked questions that showed that he was really thinking about the material and connecting it to what he was learning in his other classes. He was older than my other students, and his education was being funded by an off-campus internship which required him to take a set number of courses per semester and maintain a minimum GPA. His very career was on the line, and he knew how high the cost of failure would be. It was clear from the conversations we had that he understood and feared the consequences. So--high motivation: check. High cost: check. The missing element, if there was one, was high supervision. As I mentioned in my last post in this series, implementing the whole high supervision strategy in a course like mine is impractical. But supervision wasn't entirely absent in this case: I had referred this student to the university writing center after his first paper for me earned him a generous C-. He indicated to me that he appreciated the referral and knew that his writing needed to improve. I also told the class that I would review drafts. In the end, the student chose to plagiarize because he feared that he wouldn't be able to write a paper for me that would earn him the kind of grade he needed to keep his internship. As it turned out, he would have finished the course with a B- had his second paper (which was only 10% of the final grade) earned the same grade as the first. Requiring a rough draft for the paper might have prevented this case, but there's only so much I can do with the time that I have and the course parameters I've been given.

In the final analysis, I conclude that high supervision is the most effective of the three factors. High cost is not enough of a deterrent these days, and even students who are highly motivated may succumb to the temptation to plagiarize if other circumstances are present. As a (protestant) theology teacher, I believe that one of those other circumstances is something called the "sin nature," and it's a powerful force. When combined with other factors like poor time management or fear of failure, some students will choose to plagiarize, no matter what steps we take to make it more difficult for them to do so (in this I differ from the workshop presenter). High supervision is the most effective of the three factors simply because it places the biggest obstacle to plagiarism in the student's path. Unfortunately, it's just not always practical. All I can do is do my best to motivate students, stay vigilant, and enforce the policy when a case arises. Here's hoping the next one is a long way off.


  1. It seems in the case described, the highest of motivations led him to take the risk because of the necessary GPA to maintain. If the motivation were higher to better oneself in both writing and handling of material perhaps it would have been enough to resist temptation.
    In my work dealing with safety, we find that the issue when cutting corners is what motivation is the highest. A motivation to do a good job quickly may lead to taking high potential risks. It seems the same applies here, but how do you make someone care more about actually learning than about his GPA?

  2. I hadn't thought of the situation that way, but I can see it applying here. When I passed the first papers back I tried to explain that I had made the comments I had and made the writing center referrals because I was convinced that writing well was a skill necessary for any job in any field. The student indicated agreement and implied that he would go to the center--but finding the time to do so while carrying a full load and an internship must have been nearly impossible.

    I'm actually doing some thinking about the whole grading issue now (no relation to this post or the case mentioned in it), wondering if the way we currently assess students really leads to the outcomes we want. Stay tuned!