Tackling Low-Level Plagiarism in Schools

“Houston, we have a problem!”

At the start of 2013 I joined a new secondary (high) school where I taught two junior Social Studies classes. The students for both courses were required to complete three internally assessed research assignments over the year. There was some scope for teachers to modify aspects of the assessments, so I required my students to complete them digitally. This requirement was also to help serve my new role as Director of E-Learning, where I could find out more about the school’s ICT infrastructure which, it became apparent,  required a significant upgrade. After receiving the written assignments for both classes, in the form of newspaper articles, I suspected that there was a good amount of copying and pasting by students with a number containing information irrelevant to the topic. I searched the web for a rigorous plagiarism checker and purchased Plagscan which had very good reviews. I proceeded to run student assignments through Plagscan and was shocked at the level of copy and pasting from web sources.

The first assignment resulted in the majority of students plagiarising with rates between 40%-80% for either exact or modified text from other ‘well-known’ websites

ctrl c ctrl vI discussed my concerns with other subject teachers who were not surprised, and responded with suspicions or complaints about students plagiarising, though none had used a plagiarism detector. Some even suggested that they would not allow their students to do digital assignments because of the level of plagiarism it produced. I thought this quite strange as their students were accessing the information and typing assignments and presenting them in hardcopy, thus eliminating the possibility to check the plagiarism levels. I was observing a colleague’s similar assignments who I shared a classroom with. He had one of the most able classes and his students had produced amazing newspaper wall posters. I commented to him how fantastic they looked and he responded with something like “most of them are rubbish, they are full of copy and pasting”. Again, unfortunately there was no digital submission and hence the inability to check for plagiarism. I felt it that was my role as a teacher and as the e-learning leader to somehow address this issue for the school.

A Teacher Inquiry


I decided to progress with my Teaching Inquiry into the causes of the problem, hopefully to find strategies to address it. I reduced student grades depending on the level of plagiarism and then confronted both classes with the hard evidence. The majority were surprised at the level of plagiarism, but a good number saw nothing wrong. Most thought that copy/pasting a sentence or whole paragraph from online sources, followed by changing or re-arranging some of the text was not plagiarism, particularly as they claimed to have been taught to do this in Primary School. Purrington addresses primary teachers with “you teach the nation’s children how to cut and paste from the Internet” and states that their influence “dwarfs” all others. I believe that High School teachers are equally to blame for failing to properly address the issue. Plagiarism has been one of the biggest issues that universities face, particularly from students entering from secondary education. Now that universities (colleges) are clamping down on plagiarism, there is an increasing need for secondary schools to take responsibility and address the issue (SecEd.co.uk).

What others say about Plagiarism and how to tackle the problem

Levels of Plagiarism

Image Source: Heroes & Villains (learning.londonmet.ac.uk)

There are various types of plagiarism ranging from unintended errors through to intentional deception or cheating. Curtin University (Perth, Western Australia) divides plagiarism into three levels, Level I being lower-level and unintentional and caused by students lack of experience and/or knowledge, therefore not considered to be academic misconduct. Having searched the internet for advice on how to deal with this lower-level plagiarism, I found that the majority of the articles on plagiarism seemed to place a greater emphasis on detection and the consequences and/or punishments, rather than on finding the cause and addressing them. Even then, I question the effectiveness of some of the solutions put forward. This Huffington Post article (Friend) identifies a range of types of plagiarism and their causes but the solutions are brief and focus more on policy and teaching students how to cite sources. Another by a New Jersey school support organisation highlights the extent and consequences of plagiarism, with prevention focused on more effective ways to catch students cheating. Gilmore says that “plagiarism is the end result of the problem” and that we are being reactive, thus ineffective, by focusing on the result of student choices. Several articles encouraged educators to teach students about plagiarism including well known plagiarists. But, I felt that prolonged attention on the problem was focusing on the negative and that it would be far more positive and productive to quickly shift students focus to addressing potential gaps that led to their plagiarism, unintended or otherwise.

“It’s not all about improving citation”

This is a bold statement but I am willing to stand by it. Of course students should learn how to correctly cite sources, but if this is a primary focus early on in middle or secondary school, then it is doomed to failure. My experience of school students is that they genuinely desire to create their own original work, but overwhelming them with a myriad of technical demands can take a lot of enjoyment out of learning and creating. No wonder then that a consistent and prominent reason put forward by students who deliberately cheated was their inability to manage deadlines. In numerous cases this is really procrastination and not really a cause, but instead a consequence of students lacking the skills and desire to engage with the research process (Lindemann). Perhaps requiring students to provide their online sources by hyperlink would be an appropriate start in junior high school, progressing to full citations as they move further up the grades.

Focus on the process, not the outcome


Image Source: Dave GrayCreative Commons Licence

Even with the implementation of plagiarism checking software in secondary schools, teachers cannot think that they have solved the problem of plagiarism. Upon further questioning of my students, the overwhelming response was that they had never been taught how to gather and organise their research.

Once students are aware of the issue, eliminating low-level plagiarism is then the responsibility of the teacher who needs to teach students and give them opportunities to regularly practice the skill of gathering and organising research.

Other key methods that I used were:

  • Placing the emphasis on mastering the process, rather than on the final product.
  • Scaffolding the process, or breaking it down into more manageable stages. Lucas gives a good description of scaffolding here
  • The scaffolding process requires plenty of high quality teacher feedback and guidance as students work through the steps (Lindemann).
  • Ongoing and individual feedback can be quite demanding. I have found that requiring students to collaborate on assignments, often in pairs or in groups, not only lessens the demand on my own time, but opens the way up for more opportunities for valuable peer feedback.

My Intervention: Teaching Effective Research Skills

My intervention has led to an ongoing process of trial, reflection and improving how I teach and support students through the research process. Rather than detail the process here, I have published a separate article titled “Teaching Effective Research Skills to Middle and High School Students”. I am pleased to say that my intervention delivered immediate similar results for both classes. The third assessment, a research essay, was submitted by my limited ability Year 9 Social Studies class. 3 of the students made no real effort or progress, still delivering plagiarism levels over 50%. However, the remainder of the class had reduced their plagiarism down from earlier levels of 40-80% to an average of 16%. I was amazed when 6 of the students had plagiarism levels at less than 2%. The majority of students felt that they had significantly improved their research skills over the year as shown by the graphical feedback (below).

Student Survey Graphs

What were the implications for the school?

turnitin logo

During 2013 some teachers heard out about my use of a plagiarism scanning tool and requested that I run suspicious senior student internal assessment work through it on their behalf. By mid 2014 the ICT infrastructure had been overhauled to the point where it was time to start thinking about a whole school approach. I contacted a colleague of mine at another high school to gauge feedback on Turnitin which was being trialled by a number of teachers across a range of curriculum areas. Their positive feedback, along with support from a number of our staff, led to the decision for a school-wide implementation of Turnitin at the beginning of 2015. Turnitin was chosen not only for its integration into our Moodle LMS and Google Docs, but principally because it is a tool that places the onus on students who are able to check their own work before submission.

EasybibA Bibliography tool (Easybib) had been rolled out to assist students with citations earlier in 2014.

I left the school for another position at the end of 2014 before Turnitin came into effect. My successors have been very positive about the roll-out. They have delivered a demonstration to the whole student body to raise student awareness, plus a number of staff professional development sessions.


Cheating in School: Facts, Consequences & Prevention. (2014, February 24). Retrieved October 15, 2015, from https://middleearthnj.wordpress.com/2014/02/24/cheating-in-school

Friend, N. (2014, July 21). Why students plagiarize and what schools can do to stop It (infographic). Retrieved October 15, 2015, from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/07/21/why-students-plagiarize_n_5605889.html

Gilmore, B. (Producer). (2014, November 6). Stopping Plagiarism at the Source: Why Assignments Matter [Video file]. Retrieved from http://go.turnitin.com/l/45292/2014-10-31/24pf9

Lindemann, C. (2014, April 2). How to Stop the Plagiarism Plague. Retrieved October 15, 2015, from http://www.education.com/magazine/article/stop-plagiarism-plague/

Lucas, C. (2009, February 14). Undertaking the Long Paper. Retrieved October 15, 2015, from http://www.education.com/magazine/article/Undertaking_the_Long_Paper/

Preventing plagiarism. (2013, June 13). Retrieved October 15, 2015, from http://www.sec-ed.co.uk/best-practice/preventing-plagiarism/

Purrington, C. B. (n.d.). Preventing plagiarism [Web log post]. Retrieved October 15, 2015, from http://colinpurrington.com/projects/plagiarism

Teaching as inquiry. (2009, August 26). Retrieved October 15, 2015, from http://nzcurriculum.tki.org.nz/Curriculum-stories/Case-studies/Teachers-as-learners-Inquiry/Teaching-as-inquiry

Understanding Plagiarism. (n.d.). Retrieved October 16, 2015, from http://learning.londonmet.ac.uk/epacks/heroes-&-villains/plagiarism.html

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