Dealing with Plagiarism in the Classroom

One of my biggest fears going into teaching was that I would catch a student cheating on a test or plagiarizing an assignment.  I have been extremely fortunate that I have only encountered 2 blatant acts of plagiarism total and about 1 instance of cheating per semester.  Kids always think they are being so subtle and sneaky, but that only makes it more obvious.  I mean really, how many people normally pull the leg of their shorts up every minute or so while taking a test and then record an answer.  Each instance of cheating was dealt with appropriately.  The acts of plagiarism were actually good learning experiences for me.  One was easy to deal with: two students essentially handed in the same essay with only 3-4 unique sentences.  The other one is a lesson I learned that I’ll never forget.

dealing with students who plagiarize

dealing with students who plagiarize

While student teaching, I assigned an activity where my students (juniors in honors US History) created a magazine spread to demonstrate what they learned about the 1920s.  They had to create the cover and a 3-6 page spread (depending on how big they wrote and how big their images were) detailing what they had learned about the people and events of the Roaring 20s.  Out of 150 students who completed this assignment, only 1 used a real magazine cover, that of Al Capone on Time Magazine.  When the student turned it in, I immediately noticed that his cover was not made from scratch like the others.

I held him back at the end of class and asked if he had made it himself, and he readily admitted he had not.  I asked again to clarify if he had used an actual Time Magazine cover and he said yes.  I informed him that it was plagiarism and that he would temporarily have a 0 for the assignment until he redid the cover and made an original one.  I also let him know the highest grade he’d be able to get would be an A-.

Since I was only a student teacher, I wanted to make sure I followed through with pre-existing classroom plagiarism policies, but I also didn’t want to be the possible final straw in the student’s “I hate school/what’s the point” type mentality, so that’s why I gave him the opportunity to re-do his cover.  Well, I thought I was being more than reasonable, but he fought me on it saying he shouldn’t have to redo it.  After much more back and forth than I thought appropriate–it was spread out over 2 days!!!–I finally got his train of thought out of his head.

Apparently, my original instructions and rubric did not specify to create an “original” cover for the magazine spread, they just said to create a cover.  Now again, he was the only one out of 150 who didn’t make his own cover, but the lesson I learned from this situation was to, going forward, specify everything in the instructions that could potentially lead to a similar situation.  I now do that in the written instructions and while verbally going over assignments or activities with my kids.  The almost more important lesson I learned in this situation was that there’s no debating in a situation like this.  I never should have let the kid goad me into a debate, a back and forth, and I certainly never should have let it continue the next day.  If it is appropriate to the situation, I of course will happily have a discussion with a student over a misunderstanding or miscommunication, but never again the pleading, the whining, and the “but come on Mrs. L” or “it’s not *that* serious Mrs. L.”

In the heat of this situation, I was embarrassed that I was having to go back and forth with this kid and that he wouldn’t just do what I was asking, I feared that he’d lose respect for me and that the rest of the semester would go poorly, and I remember thinking if it’s this hard dealing with a simple case of plagiarism, what am I going to do when it’s a more serious case.  Thankfully I haven’t discovered other cases, it’s more the cheating that I catch about once a semester.  Oh, and the student in question did eventually turn in an original magazine cover for the assignment.

Now, I’m not naive enough to think other kids haven’t plagiarized, but I just haven’t caught it, though I do keep an eye open!  Maybe I have to keep both eyes open much wider…or maybe the kids are just getting a really good foundation in middle school and it’s translating to their high school academic moral compass.  For now let’s go with kudos to middle school teachers 🙂

2 replies »

  1. Every semester I catch college students cheating. My recommendation is having a clear definition of it in your syllabus and or classroom expectations along with consequences. 9x out of ten in college they can’t make it up. I give a zero for the assignment and report to the dean. They still have to redo the assignment in its entirety or they fail the class. By putting it in my syllabus there is never any back and forth. It’s amazing what they think they can get away with.


    • It really is amazing the lengths they will go to to cheat. In one school I was in kids couldn’t have labels on their water/gatorade bottles because a kid had written the answers to a test on the inside of the gatorade label! By college there’s absolutely no excuses so I like your policy a lot! Thanks for sharing 🙂


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