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Classroom Experiences: Dealing With Plagiarism

by Heather Carreiro May 2, 2010
An English teacher struggles with pervasive plagiarism in the writing classroom.

I had made it clear that glitter and ribbons should not accompany college level assignments , and that any offending projects would promptly make their way to the bin rather than into my briefcase. A significant amount of class time had also been spent explaining what plagiarism is, how to avoid it and what the consequences would be for anyone who attempted it, so when one student handed me a glitter-contaminated poetry portfolio, I was immediately suspect.

During my three years in Pakistan, I worked with local universities and teacher training institutes. In this particular situation, I was conducting a course on Teaching Creative Writing for undergraduate education majors.

He seemed confused when I asked him if he had conducted a séance to get the poem, considering this alleged ‘cousin’ died in 1882.

None of the students had ever been taught creative writing, and many lacked basic writing skills, so I focused on modeling creative writing units rather than asking them to strategize about how to teach something they had no experience doing themselves.

My students had a good amount of time to write in class, as in previous semesters I’d learned that plagiarism is common for both academic and creative work, and I liked to actually see them produce something.

Once a local student in my eighth grade class handed in a poem by Longfellow with his own name on it. When I asked him about it, he straight up admitted he didn’t write it. He then added, “Actually my cousin wrote it.” He seemed confused when I asked him if he had conducted a séance to get the poem, considering this alleged ‘cousin’ died in 1882.

The college students were passing in a collection of work they had written and revised over the previous month. Glitter girl frequently missed class and didn’t manage to write more than a few words during in-class writing sessions. I had told them that any over-decorated projects would be left ungraded, but I was curious to see what she’d come up with.

The first page was a famous limerick that she had obviously cut and pasted, and the second page, decorated with numerous hearts and flowers, was this:

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” (1 Corinthians 14:4-7)

Yeah…she did it. She somehow managed to plagiarize the Bible as well.

My past confrontations with Pakistani plagiarizers had generally gone well. Longfellow’s ‘cousin’ gave up on copy-pasting and became one of the best writers in his school. Another girl who started off her year giving me copied work ended up writing extra narrative essays in her free time, and we published one of her restaurant reviews on the class blog.

The key with these successful students is that they were able to admit they cheated and move on. In a culture that often places saving face at a higher value than fessing up, this was a significant move for them. Glitter girl wasn’t able to cross that threshold.

She knew that I knew she was lying, but she wouldn’t confess.

I tried to lay it out for her: “Look, you didn’t write these poems. This one is a famous limerick. It was written well before you were born. Did you write it in a past life? And this one, this one is from the Bible! It’s almost two thousand years old. Don’t even try to tell me you wrote this.”

“Miss, miss, but I did write those poems! Can I resubmit? I will email it to you.”

During more than 20 minutes of begging, not once did she admit that she copied. She knew that I knew she was lying, but she wouldn’t confess. At the same time she was defending herself and saying she didn’t plagiarize, she was asking for a chance to re-do the portfolio. My logic could not wrap around this discrepancy.

I wondered if local teachers simply let their students know that they were on to them and offered a chance to re-do assignments, rather than calling them out and giving them zeros. At what point do I stick to my own ethics, and at what point do I give students more leeway?

A Pakistani friend of mine spent her secondary school years in Lahore before moving to the US for college. During her freshman year, she got caught plagiarizing. The professor was furious, but my friend actually didn’t understand what she had done wrong. She had cut and pasted different passages from different websites, compiled them into one document and included the links. That was how she had always ‘written’ papers, and her teachers had accepted them.

I didn’t allow Glitter girl to resubmit the assignment. Sitting there in the class, listening to her grovel, and having the same conversation over and over for 20 minutes was one of the most uncomfortable moments in my teaching career.

I handed in her sparkly portfolio to the department head as evidence and dropped off my grade sheet with the registrar. Due to her low average, I was sure that she would fail the course.

A few weeks later, I found out that everyone in the class, including her, had officially passed.

I had pressed for the truth and stuck to the rules, but it was me who ultimately ended up losing face.

Have you ever been faced with a situation like this in the classroom? How did you deal with it?

Community Connection

Think you can deal with plagiarism in the cross-cultural classroom? Learn How to Become an International Teacher or check out Matador’s Teaching ESL Focus Page.

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