Marvelous Mistakes (Steve Guditus @sguditus)

This week, I had a conversation with a first-year teacher about a student who plagiarized.  The student had pretty closely adapted a cartoon, and handed it in as his/her project.  Unsure of its true author, the teacher did some research and found the cartoon, nearly word-for-word and image-for-image (is that a thing?).  The teacher asked me to discuss the scenario with her, because she had never before encountered a student plagiarizing.  Our conversation was a fruitful one, and she asked great questions:

  • Why did the student plagiarize?
  • Did the student know that he/she was plagiarizing?
  • How will he/she learn from his/her mistakes?
  • How do I grade the student?
  • What about consequences?  What message gets sent to the student and fellow classmates?
  • Do students know what plagiarism is?
Ultimately, when students make a mistake, they should be permitted to learn from their mistakes; a consequence should be separate from the learning and the grade, which should reflect mastery, not poor decision-making.  I am all for teaching responsibility to students, and as John Dewey said, "Failure is instructive.  The person who really thinks learns quite as much from his failures as from his successes."  With this in mind, I recommended the teacher have a conversation with the student, confirm if this action was a deliberate bait-and-switch, or something much less sinister, in an age of copy-and-paste with the click of a button - and to take the time to follow up and provide  consequences through reflection and understanding of what had been done (and potentially a detention, too). 

In many instances, students do not realize that a copy-and-paste is considered plagiarism or cheating.  As educators, part of our job is to make sure the experience is instructive.  Students need to understand, in a low-stakes environment, (a) what plagiarism is, (b) how to avoid plagiarism and (c) that the stakes for plagiarizing (and cheating) only increase as one gets older.  In high school, you might fail a test or a final; in college you might be expelled.  

I implored the first-year teacher to think carefully about the purpose of any punishment, and to  separate "the consequence" from "the grade."  As alluring as it might be to say, "deducting points will teach responsibility," the only purpose in doing so is to undermine what a grade truly means: measure of mastery.  Instead of deducting grades to punish and teach life lessons, we should teach responsibility by including parents in the situation, ensure they are aware of what happened, have conversations with the student, and set up opportunities for understanding and reflection, so the same behaviors do not occur again.  If the only punishment is deducing points from the project of a student who cheated, it certainly seems like a convenient, easy consequence - and not one that would be instructive for the student.  It is far more difficult and time consuming to involve many people, discuss, reflect, and set goals for improvement - but doing so can literally change the course of a student's academic future.  As a educators, isn't that what we want?

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