Monday, November 30, 2015

Detecting Plagiarism

As referred to in the previous post, students sometimes plagiarize passages from the Internet to insert into their written assignments. Even in large classes where one does not know students or their work that well, one can usually spot such insertions immediately because the diction, style, thoughtfulness, etc does not match with the rest of the paper. In fact, it is often hilariously discordant because weak writers do not know enough to be able to assess their own weaknesses, and cannot themselves detect the errors in their own work that make the lack of such errors in the plagiarized passages so blatant.

Proving the copying, however, is sometimes a bit trickier. The quick and free way to start is to select some distinct phrase from the suspect passage and googling it. About half the time the passage will immediately pop up as Google recognizes the source for that phrase or sentence. Miscreants will be astounded that one found the article in some book or article they had assumed to be too obscure to come to one's notice, but of course one has at least as good a command of Google as they do, and most of them have never heard of Google Scholar, and one is searching by phrases not topics, so likely nailed it a good deal faster than they had unearthed it originally.

There are a couple of student tactics for getting around such simple counter-measures, however. First, some students figured out that if they run the original passage through Google translate to switch the passage to say, Italian, and then back again into English, the original phrasing will be sufficiently garbled that a Google search will not be able to find the original passage. Of course, the diction and style is so garbled by these measures that the plagiarized passage virtually leaps off the page. Similarly, if you get a nearly incoherent essay that says sort of the right content, it may have been a complete paper lifted off the net and transmogrified. Of course, such writing is so atrocious, it may not be necessary to even raise the issue of plagiarism, since an 'F' is an 'F', but if the references have been left intact, those might be a good place to start a Google search.

Another student technique, with which I had been unfamiliar until brought to my attention by Murray Hay, PhD, is that they can insert hidden characters with a passage so that when one copies the phrase to search for, Google looks for the phrase including the hidden character(s) and so does not find it. The solution here, obviously, is to type the phrase into Google oneself rather than cutting and pasting.

Another quick strategy for identifying stolen passages is to check for paragraph styles. Students usually have the wherewithal to do a 'select all' and change the font to be consistent throughout, but may well forget to change (or not understand about) styles in Word. Doesn't always show up, but if you spot a variety of styles for different paragraphs, the question has to arise why the student would do one paragraph in this style, the next in something else, rather than stick with the default.

Of course, there are services, such as, that will provide a much more sophisticated analysis of a paper for a fee. I recommend strongly against the use of such services. First, as mentioned in my previous post, I dislike the assumption of guilt whether directed at 'suspect' papers, or routinely applied to the entire class. The damaging effects of false accusations make identify specific suspect papers morally untenable; and applying the process to all papers denigrates the entire student population and undermines the trust required for effective teaching. Further, there are many copyright issues around a service such as, as the company adds any paper analyzed to its database. Student work is the student's, not the faculty's or the instructor's, so cavalierly handing it over to a third party strikes me as a highly questionable practice. I suppose your faculty can impose any testing it wants as a contractual requirement for receiving a degree from the institution, but such high handed actions have about the same character as drug testing. So, you know, good luck with that.

If one does use a service such as, it is important that this be noted in the course outline; otherwise, one runs the risks of lawsuits.

Term paper mills are another concern of many instructors, but these are usually not worth worrying about. Yes, a student can buy a generic paper off the net, often at quite reasonable rates. No, they probably won't fit the specifics of your assignment&mdash>unless one are designing very bad assignments. A generic paper on MacBeth might fit a generic assignment on MacBeth, but if one is designing your assessments on the questions at the end of the chapter or the package that came with the Powerpoint for the course, than one deserves what one gets. Authentic assessments do not lend themselves to generic answers found on the list at some term paper mill. If one's says, "I need a paper on MacBeth", then students will try to find one for you. More interesting questions generate more interesting papers (which are also more interesting to mark). If on the other hand, one has questions that more accurately reflect the needs and interests of one's students, then the generic paper is going to be off topic. Students too weak or too rushed to write credible answers of their own will be correspondingly unable to adapt the plagiarized paper to the specific demands of the assignment.

Wealthier or more desperate students could theoretically commission a specifically targeted paper through some of the more sophisticated paper mills, but I've never encountered one worth more than a 'C' (in a class with a B+/A- average). Better than a 0 for no submission, I suppose, but that student wasn't making it through the final anyway.... Detecting the plagiarism is likely easy for anyone with classes small enough to know individual students, since the paper's style and the student's will usually sufficiently diverge as to be obvious. Certainly, their in-class performance will not likely accord with the knowledge, skills, and opinions expressed in the commissioned paper. One then just asks to discuss the paper with the student, asking questions about their reasons for decision to do this or that in terms of the content. If the student is able to answer fluently, then hey, they actually know the content, so what's the problem? They perhaps beat an arbitrarily imposed deadline, giving them an unfair advantage over their peers, but it might be better for the instructor to re-examine one's deadlines than worry obsessively about plagiarism. More likely, students commissioning such papers forget to even read it, and their lack of knowledge about their own submission will give them away.

The problem is more serious in larger classes where students can count on their anonymity to protect them from too close scrutiny. One way to cut down on cheating is to have students post their work to a secure class website to share. Although you and your marker may not be able to identify the plagiarist, their peers often know. Habitual cheaters will be often fingered by long suffering peers, and those papers can be examined more closely. I have colleagues who identified several such cases by opening up the Personal Information page (which few students ever bother with, or even know about) and noting the paper was written by someone other than the student.

Ultimately, the best way to address plagiarism is to design better assignments. Is the term paper even an appropriate format for one's course? There has been much ink spilled in defense of this traditional assessment, and it does indeed hold the potential to assess student writing ability, critical thinking skills, and so on; but that is equally true of many other, possibly more relevant, written formats. Further, although essay assignments could test critical thinking and writing skills, they mostly don't. Badly constructed assignments often amount to little more than asking students for an info dump on some topic, regurgitating the instructor's analysis rather than their own. Such assignments encourage plagiarism. Instructors using an Inquiry Approach, on the other hand, instead ask students to research personally relevant questions for which answers do not yet exist, which makes plagiarism rather irrelevant. If one honestly believes plagiarism to be rampant on one's campus, change up the assignments rather than clamping down on students. Widespread plagiarism indicates structural problems with the institution's assessment practices: bad assignments, poorly administered; administrators who fail to enforce official policies when instructors identify plagiarism; unnecessary and unrealistic pressure on students with a program; policies that enforce unfair grading practices (e.g., limiting the number of high grades in a class, regardless of actual student mastery), and so on. Fix the problems, and plagiarism will largely disappear, with the exception of a few sociopaths clever enough to get through the above screens. And really, are these not the future engineers and executives of, say Volks Wagon, that our institutions are intended to produce?

Oh, and speaking of plagiarism, I cannot tell you how many times I've heard colleagues go on and on about students stealing whole lines from the net, who, when I pass by their classrooms, have Powerpoints filled with images they've stolen off the net. Whenever I challenge then about this practice, the inevitable answer is some variation on, 'that's just pictures' or 'well, I can't be expected to draw that', without any apparent recognition of the irony of their actions. Unless you have received permission and cited the source for every illustration in your own presentations, stop saying you "don't understand why students think it's okay to plagiarize," because you've been role modelling the same behaviour.

(The illustration for this page, is from

Monday, November 23, 2015


I am not a huge fan of homework, especially in the elementary and middle grades. I understand homework as something assigned to students who were unable to complete the task during class time, either because they were goofing, or because they need extra time because they are slow. Slow and steady wins the race and all that. Assigning homework because the teacher was goofing or slow, however, is another matter entirely.

As a parent, I was constantly amazed at the apparent expectation that we teach our children the school curriculum while being regaled with stories about "Thursday afternoon film parties" or "Friday candy parties" or whatever. Every time we went to show our daughters a movie, we inevitably got "We saw that in school already" but when we asked about math or English, we were told "she gave us the worksheet and told us to do this at home". I might not have believed my kids version of things if my wife hadn't been in the classroom at the end of the year when the teacher said, "I forgot to teach printing this term, so here's the booklet, take it home over the summer and have you parents do it with you." I kid you not. I might not have believed my wife, had the same teacher not told me that she wasn't doing parent-teacher interviews during the two days set aside for them (i.e., classes cancelled and school closed for parent-teacher interviews) because she was going to Los Vegas with her boyfriend. (I actually get there may be circumstances when skipping out may be necessary, but should you be telling parents you're blowing them off? What drives me the most crazy is that many of my best graduates can't find permanent teaching jobs, and yet this lazy incompetent is teaching my kids...)

Don't be that teacher: don't send work home because you lacked the motivation or classroom management skills to actually cover the curriculum in class. Occasional homework for the few students who didn't get the job done because they were having trouble focusing that day, or for a whole class that was having one of those days, okay. Part of learning to manage time and deadlines is that if you miss the deadline, there is going to be homework. Kids get that, and parents get that. But if 'occasional catch up' turns into a regular pattern, then the problem is structural—i.e., you. Assigning out of class work to the whole class routinely is just bad teaching in the lower grades, and probably way overdone in the higher ones.

The cartoon at the top of the page nicely illustrates one of the problems: most parents aren't professional teachers and won't necessarily know anything about whatever you're teaching in class. Asking parents to teach for you by asking them to supervise homework is saying "anyone can do this, you don't need an Education degree or have any content knowledge." Do you really want to send that message home on a daily basis? Because that is not a good thing for the public to believe when it comes time for salary negotiations. Just saying.

But the cartoon is about a middle-class stay-at-home dad working with his average kid. In reality, one has to be careful sending work home when one knows nothing about what 'home' is like. Sending work home to my house is great: my kids have two professors for parents, both of whom happened to have trained as teachers as well. As professionals we have the resources to find the books, computers, study area, and—if necessary—even tutors to ensure that our child can keep up with (or get ahead of) the rest of the class. Oh, and our kid's parents are happily married, so there is not a lot of yelling or drama interfering with quiet homework time.

Ours is perhaps not an average household. I stopped sending homework home when one of my students explained that her parents didn't speak a word of English when I asked her why she hadn't gotten her parents to proofread her essay. Well, duh. A moment's reflection and it should be obvious that relying on parents to take charge of the student's reading program or math facts or whatever else you're sending home ignores the fact that many kids come from ESL homes; or working class homes where both parents have to work, work two jobs, or shift work, or otherwise aren't available; or unstable homes where parents may have other preoccupations than spending an hour on spelling practice; or just a home with three other kids, all of whom have been assigned the same two hours of homework; and so on. You don't know what their home life is like, and by counting on someone else to do the teaching for you, you are widening the gap between the haves and the have nots. School is supposed to be the great equalizer, the one fair and safe place in the world for kids. Not so much if you routinely ignore the very different opportunities available to kids outside the classroom.

Or how about this: maybe home time should be about family, not work that the teacher didn't have time for in the six or seven hour work day. My kids have Tae Kown Do four nights a week (with some of the best teachers I have ever encountered) and music lessons, and recitation, and all the extras our incomes provide. Fitting that in with supper and actually having time to talk with my kids is already making me wonder if I am over-programming my kids—I am therefore not happy to find my family time has been appropriated by apparently lazy teachers who feel they have the right to program, not just my child's time, but mine too! And I'm a ridiculously privileged white male. If I resent teachers intruding on and colonizing my child's after school hours, how do you think the average parent feels.

So, you know, don't do that. If my kid brings homework home because she was goofing and that means she has to miss out of some fun family activity that one day, fine. That's teaching her about consequences and I am all for it. If I have to cancel Tae Kown Do or music lessons altogether because homework has become a routine timesuck, then that is not okay, especially in the lower grades. My oldest is currently in Grade 12 IB, so okay, there is going to be some homework because a Grade 12 IB student is developing the time-management and self-direction one expects of an adult. But if you are sending anything home in elementary, or more than 20 minutes/day in Junior High/Middle school, you're making a mistake.

Monday, November 9, 2015


This happens more often than one would think. My favorite example were the three classroom teachers in one of my graduate courses (who had complained throughout my course how much they hated the rampant cheating by the students in their own classrooms) that turned in a group webpage assignment to me that they had obviously downloaded off the Internet. Leaving aside how stupid they must think me that I wouldn't already know every relevant website and recognized it immediately, I was greatly amused that they thought they could pass this plagiarism off by the simple expedient of substituting their names on the title page. When confronted, the leader of the team bald-faced told me that this was entirely their work and "that other site must have stolen it from us". The other two just looked at their feet and shuffled a bit, leaving it to their team leader to hang them all. So I used the "page source" tab to show them the HTML in their browser, and scrolled down to the metadata tags which included, "Author: Debbie E. Middleton" and "Creation date: 1999".

Students always seem so amazed that one can spot the material they've downloaded from the net and dropped into the centre of their paper, but of course they have no understanding of the (to me) obvious differences in diction, sentence structure, and thoughtfulness. Most students who cheat lack sufficient knowledge and skills to get away with it; because if they knew enough, they probably wouldn't have bothered cheating in the first place. At least for written work.

The exception here is multiple choice tests where a quick glance to the desk next to them gives them the answer to #24. Higher IQ students cheat less often because they know the odds of getting a correct answer from a lower-performing peer are lower than figuring it out for themselves, but everyone gets panicky sometimes, or has a momentary lapse. But this is an easy one to address: simply print four or five versions of the exam, identical in very way, except the order of the questions / alternatives is reordered so the answer to 21 is A on this paper but c on that one. Being identical in all other respects, no one is disadvantaged. Being a different order, everytime a student cheats by looking at their neighbour's paper, their grade goes down 1 point. The greater the cheating, the lower the mark, with no intervention from the instructor required. As you collect the papers, you sort them into the appropriate pile for version A through D and apply the appropriate answer key. With word processing (or better yet, one of the software programs for online tests) this is ridiculously easy to manage and saves a lot of unpleasantness, recriminations, and (worst of all) false accusations of cheating.

On the whole, though, don't become obsessed with issues of cheating. Unless you have reason to believe there is a serious problem, normal precautions are usually sufficient. No precautions does, unfortunately, actively encourage cheating since it sends the message you don't care. But standard invigilation of exams—no leaving the room, no doing your own work at the front of the room, no asking the secretary to cover for you—sends the message that you and your institution care, but it's nothing personal. Taking excessive precautions sends the message that you do not trust students, which can ultimately undermine classroom learning because participation in classroom discussion requires some level of trust. Instead, take the position that you know students are anxious to find out what they know and can do (i.e., that they wish to complete an authentic assessment). If you really believe that, they will too. Our actions convey our expectations, and students generally live up to our expectations for good or ill, which argues against going overboard in a campaign against cheating.

On the other hand, we owe it to good students to not allow them to be penalized for being honest while all around them cheaters prosper. Middle ground, then, eh?

The best way to decrease cheating is to assign tasks that actually have meaning and matter to the students, that allow students to take some ownership. Ironically, in an attempt to avoid students downloading material from the web, many instructors assign obscure topics that aren't even on Wikipedia to ensure that the student is forced to produce original material. But a topic too obscure to be on the Web is too obscure for any course; a topic so narrow they cannot cheat is too narrow to be meaningful. By increasing student alienation from the assigned task, one increases the likelihood of cheating. (And there is no topic too narrow or obscure that they can't hire someone on the web to write it for them.) Instead, let them loose on what is relevant and authentically useful to them, and students will happily do the work. Occasionally, students will cheat on even a worthwhile assignment if their workload becomes too overwhelming to do it all, but then maybe instructors in your program should get together to talk about student workloads....

When students do cheat on authentic assessments, it's almost always obvious. A colleague, for example, used a journal assignment in his course, and one ESL student downloaded an online diary instead of attempting her own. Of course, it was immediately obvious that the diction was too Canadian to have been written by this ESL student, but when the student denied it, it was a simple matter of point out diary entries that could not possibly apply, given that the student was not of that church, did not grow up in that country, did not in fact match any of the particulars of the diary entries.

So assume no one is a cheater, unless the system in which you are teaching is promoting cheating through careless disinterest. If cheating is a problem where you teach, look first to bad structures and poorly thought-through assignments and then at the administrators who are turning a blind eye; rather than glare at students. Lobby for best practices among colleagues before blaming student populations. Once those administrative and collegial issues have been addressed, the majority of students will not want to cheat, and the (vanishingly small) minority of habitual cheaters may be addressed on a case by case basis. Or, to put it another way, if you are encountering a lot of cheating, the problem is you, not (primarily) the students....