Plagiarism has always been a problem for students, teachers, parents, and society. It is true that with the increase in dependence on technology, plagiarism becomes easier than ever, but it only remains true if the assignments do not evolve along with the technology. In order to reduce plagiarism effectively, modifications must be made to both the way assignments are given as well as the assignments themselves.
In the humanities and language departments, writing forms a large chunk of the curriculum, usually in the form of essays and papers. Being able to write is unequivocally important, but the current manner of giving students written assignments is very prone to plagiarism. Having students write all their essays in class would be one way to greatly reduce it, and would force students to rely on what they think and know to craft their essays. Many science classes have lab days that extend for two periods or afterschool; there is not any reason why English classes cannot do the same. Of course, writing in-class essays is only one way of making plagiarism nearly impossible. Having students discuss the essay topic or reading material in groups (for a grade), with the teacher listening, is also another way; parroted information is much easier to discern when spoken than when written. Students can also write opinion pieces on current events, for which it is harder to find pre-existing examples. With some minor adjustments to the assignments, it is not very difficult to make plagiarism require more effort than writing the essays themselves. What is more important is to make the assignments worth not plagiarizing.
Plagiarizing often stems from the belief that the assignment does not merit the amount of effort needed to earn a decent grade. In order to extinguish plagiarism as much as is possible, improving the quality of the assignments is just as important as changing the way they are administered. Teachers need to cut more of the rote assignments and prepare assignments that challenge students to think instead of merely requesting it. There is nothing wrong with having students write essays about classic novels and award winning poetry, but what would make it better would be to prohibit students from writing their essays on any of the arguments that have been discussed in class. With the Great Gatsby, for example, instead of having students write about the American Dream, the role of women in the novel, or the social commentary on moral values of the 1920’s (topics that have been repeatedly hammered into students’ brains in schools around the nation, until their essays all look the same because this is all they ever get out of the novel), have them come up with essay topics such as Nick’s hypocrisy as a narrator, Tom Buchanan’s obsessive need for control, and the influence of upbringing on character for Tom, Nick, Daisy, and Gatsby. If every person is unique, then every one’s reading of the novel is different, and their writing should be allowed to reflect their individuality.
The suggestion of putting severe penalties for those who plagiarize is inherently flawed. There is no foolproof way to catch every single person who plagiarizes, and punishments do not help the students understand that by plagiarizing, they are only fooling and hindering themselves, not the professor. After high school and college, in the workplace, grades do not matter nearly as much as what one actually has in the gray matter between their ears. Students who get away with plagiarizing will inevitably crash and burn in real life. Instead of punishment, which, due to the many ways of avoiding it, does nothing to convince students of refraining from it, the idea that plagiarism is most destructive to the plagiarist needs to be actively taught in classes, not in the form of a platitude, but by showing students the benefits of not plagiarizing. Letting students experience having to manipulate the curriculum to complete assignments and giving the assignments in a creative, more interactive manner are both ways of helping students learn to make the right choice. It is unfortunate that the temptation of an easy grade exists, but ‘bad’ things will always exist. Instead of wasting time bemoaning its existence, society should take the chance to teach students to make their own decisions in lieu of making the decisions for them through punishment.
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