Grading and plagiarism goes boink

As I go through routine grading of primary sources (marking rubrics for six criteria for each assignment), I often think about Laura Gibbs’ non-grading routines at the University of Oklahoma.  Her grading system is explained to students here, and I have looked at it periodically for many years, like a diabetic outside a bakery, wishing, wishing…

My primary justification/excuse for not going into an honor grading system has been the number of students I teach. To fabulous profs like Laura, the grading is secondary to the ongoing feedback provided to each individual student. That level of granularity is impossible for my classes of 40 students each. I have also always felt the system would be difficult for the community college level of work.

At the same time, I have worked hard, using Canvas’ rubrics, to establish grading norms that are easy for students to understand, making the feedback, if not fully individualized, at least in-depth and helpful.

Now the overall objection to “declarations” or honors grading, where students declare their work as complete, I hear from many people, as I’m sure Laura has as well. The big one is: “students will cheat”. They will say they are done when they’re not. They will say they covered all the criteria when they didn’t. They will say they wrote all this themselves when they didn’t.

I worry about that too. But my view is changing, oddly enough because my view on plagiarism has evolved over the last 30 years of teaching.

Here’s where I am at the moment. I have students who plagiarize passages out of the book or off the internet. They put them in primary source commentary, discussions, and writing assignments. I catch a lot of these, eventually. I don’t use TurnItIn, because it steals the students’ intellectual property. Rather I rely on my experience reading student work, and Google’s search for phrases I find suspicious. I am almost always right when I suspect plagiarism.

When I find it, I inform the student privately that it’s not OK, to see the syllabus and catalog about plagiarism. The last few years I’ve asked them to discuss with me what plagiarism is, and to promise not to do it again. This last may seem strange, but it’s been helpful. And this term I’ve been asking those who want a regrade to not only tell me what plagiarism is, but to rewrite their work by messaging me with their original work with all the plagiarized passages in parentheses, followed by their revision.

But there’s the larger context. A number of years ago, we were told that we cannot kick a student out of a course for plagiarism. Then we were told we cannot give them an F in the course either. All we can do is give them an F on the assignment they plagiarized. This implied a new view of cheating at the state level. It also reinforced the idea that I am the police officer, responsible for finding plagiarists and catching them. But the punishment is to be limited.

I find that I no longer accept any of this. Plagiarism is cheating – it is an academic crime, yes, but more importantly it is dishonesty, which is a moral crime. It is very difficult to legislate against a moral crime. This country has extreme problems today with the whole issue of cheating and dishonesty. More and more it is seen as OK so long as you don’t get caught. That’s not morality. That doesn’t teach anything at all. I catch you, I give you an F. So you don’t do it in my class anymore. That’s the lesson: not that it’s wrong, but that it’s forbidden.  By some teachers. Sometimes.

At Laura’s institution, there is a group that deals with academic integrity, and states its intention to foster such integrity, inside and outside the classroom. At my institution, the page on academic integrity seems more concerned with the student right to protest an instructor’s punishment.

The moral responsibility for student plagiarism and cheating should not be on me. It should be on the student.  I have become, in today’s world, much more concerned that the student understand the unethical nature of plagiarism and other forms of cheating. I want them to feel it inside, but I have not the time, skill, or knowledge to Socratically take them individually through their own beliefs to guide them toward a universal morality. Instead, I take the approach I’ve mentioned when I catch it. But there must be many, many plagiarized passages I miss. Why? Because if they’re really good at it, I won’t catch it. So I’m only catching the students who aren’t very good at it. Perhaps someday those students will change their minds. But the habitual, hard-core offenders are just proving they’re right to cheat, because they get away with it.

I can’t work in that world anymore. I would like to move to a system where I ask them to promise honesty at the start, and declare that they have completed their work as best they can. Then, if they cheat or plagiarize, I’ve done my best to ensure that they know that what they are doing is cheating and lying. The moral burden is on them.

Being less brave than Laura Gibbs, and subjected to different conditions, I will be adapting her method. My whole class won’t be honor-graded. I am keeping the quizzes and the writing assignments as is. I am keeping the reading annotations in Perusall, because I’ve seen it helps students complete and grapple with the reading. But today I have designed a short quiz for each primary source assignment, and I plan to do it for each homework. The single question asks them to check off criteria on a list. These are the same criteria I currently use on my rubric. As a Canvas quiz question, this is “multiple answer”. All the checkboxes checked will lead to 100% for that assignment in the gradebook, or fractions thereof if not all boxes are checked. It’s up to them to be honest.

I plan to roll this out with my two mid-semester start classes, after spring break. But the idea may be bigger than a self-graded quiz. If I do this for both primary sources and homework, the emphasis of the course will shift toward their own work, and their own assessment of that work. In classes where I don’t have homework, I may well add it, in this self-evaluative format.

So, does all this mean I won’t engage their work, won’t read it all, because they’re doing the “grading”? On the contrary. It will make it possible for me to focus on their work better, to discern patterns, to help the students individually who need help. And when I do catch cheating, it will enable me to place the responsibility where it belongs.

2 thoughts on “Grading and plagiarism goes boink

  1. This is such a beast of an issue.

    The wise and beloved Kathleen Rippberger used to tell me not to bother with plagiarism, reasoning that the action does its own harm to the person doing it. Like smoking cigarettes or living on cheeseburgers, plagiarism pretty much guarantees the person’s future suffering; we don’t need to do anything more.

    But I had problems with this attitude, because it seemed to belong to an ideal universe where karma is inevitable. Too, I felt responsible to my profession: writers should respect each other’s work, not steal it; that is part of what I teach. (I can hear my mother’s voice: “how would you like it if someone took *your* bicycle?”)

    So there will be no honors system for me, because some students will cheat if they can and I feel obligated to stomp on that behavior. Recent research (within 5 years or so) revealed that something like 80% of high school students cheat more or less routinely. I don’t see this in my classes–it’s more like 2 out of 25, which is…hmmm. I have no idea. Not a lot. (10%? My poor math teachers must be rolling in their graves.) So it’s not much effort for me to monitor, and it’s important enough that I’m willing to do it.

    It’s discouraging to see that the college I work for is more concerned with student rights than with other people’s rights, but I can’t change that; I think it’s part of the infantilization of Americans generally. When I see, around campus, preschool mottoes like “2 teach is 2 touch lives 4 ever” (with a cartoon drawing of an apple! How adorable!) I feel vaguely nauseous. But that’s a grousing for another time.

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    1. Aw, grouse here anytime!

      I have no intention, though, of abrogating my right to stomp. I like how Laura has put in her honors system exactly that, a punishment for violating the honors system. I could be fooling myself thinking I’m adding a layer of moral responsibility, but at the same time I want to do it. It’s the routine-ness that bothers me.

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