Vigilant teachers giving more plagiarism-proof assignments

Kira Busch is worried about plagiarism.

The 10th-grader at St. Catherine's School recently wrote a three-page history paper. Because she knows that her teachers are on the lookout for plagiarism, she color-coded her

notes and was very, very careful with the information she took from her assigned research partner. 

She didn't want to steal someone's words or ideas by accident.

"I've heard of a couple of people who have gotten expelled for cases of plagiarism," Busch said.

Busch's worries about turning in original work are shared by high school students in the Richmond area. To ease those concerns, educators spend hours teaching students how to document their research.

What students and educators are saying.

Plagiarism 101
I think my friends are tempted a lot. It's kind of easy with a computer. You can just file-share stuff with each other and put your name on it.
- Shannon Marklin, Deep Run High sophomore

No e-research allowed
Every single research paper I've done in high school, they won't allow us to use Internet sources. We have to look through books and get the information ourselves. I'd rather look through books, myself.
- Casey Mitchell, Midlothian High junior

Zero tolerance
The slackers in school, who don't like to do work, do plagiarize stuff. I know some people who have gotten caught on major reports and assignments. Teachers have no tolerance. You fail for that.
- Kristen Parsley, Hanover High senior

There for the taking
I'm not saying that technology forces us into plagiarism or anything, but there's so much more opportunity because there's so much more stuff [available].
- Kira Busch, St. Catherine's sophomore

Not worth it
It seems pointless to me to [plagiarize]. I would think that I could do better on it. I couldn't sleep if I ever did it.
- Jack Wren, Henrico High sophomore

Case closed at Open High

After your first month [here], they know what you can and can't do. You really can't plagiarize at this school. People try every once in a while.
- Ashley Smith, Open High senior

Robbing yourself
If you plagiarize, you're not giving yourself a chance. You're robbing yourself of an excellent opportunity to say what's on your mind and get it read.
- Porchia Hunter, Open High senior

Doing the work
I don't think I've ever heard, personally, of someone taking a paper off the Internet. When students are pressed for time, they still do the work themselves. They really do.
- Becky Miller, Hopewell High senior

Simple solution
This is not a new issue. It's been around as long as assignments. The best way to prevent it is still the same as it's always been: Be familiar with students' writing styles, so that you as teachers can recognize [plagiarism]."

- Wendy Sellors, Henrico educational specialist for library information services


Internet gray area
The most difficult thing that students have to deal with . . . is how to properly document [their sources]. . . . I think they understand the concept of plagiarism as far as plagiarism from text. I think the line is gray when talking about plagiarism from Internet sites.
- Randi Smith, Chesterfield secondary language arts instructional specialist

If students care . . .
Plagiarism is really one small part of a much larger process. If you think about doing research, lots of complex thinking and writing skills are involved. When kids don't have a topic to care about, that's when they plagiarize, I think. If they care, they will work hard to make it theirs.
- Clary Carleton, Open High English department chairwoman

Honest mistake
Lots of students don't intentionally plagiarize. Lots of times, it truly is a mistake. . . . Most of it is that the kid just doesn't know.
- Arleen Reinhardt, Manchester High English department chairwoman and teacher

Most don't cheat
For the most part, kids really want to do a good job. Sometimes, a handful of kids try to get away with [plagiarism]. Most students want to be successful.
- Brenda Gates, Thomas Dale High English department chairwoman

Think again
"[Students] don't think we're going to catch them. They don't think we know their sentence structure. . . . They think they have an edge on us with technology.
- Ann Marie Seely, Atlee High English department chairwoman

It's not going away
"[Plagiarism] may not be the burning topic that it was, but I don't think it's gone away. Nor do I think it will ever go away. The scary part of that is that it's just a way of life.
- Julie Tait, Hanover High library media specialist

The pressure is on
I had one kid that I caught who used a paper from the Internet. I think it was a case of exhaustion. These kids - their parents are putting so much pressure on them to bring home [good] grades.
- Wendy Edelman, Atlee High English teacher

But there are always a few who choose to plagiarize.

"Every single semester I've been at Open [High School], I have caught a student at plagiarism," said Clary Carleton, who has taught English at the Richmond public school for five years. "I'm sure I don't catch every single person that does it."

To deter the would-be cheaters, local teachers are creating plagiarism-proof assignments, using plagiarism-detection software to screen papers and enforcing the consequences for students who are caught. Many, if not all, area high schools have honor codes that prohibit cheating.

"It's really about teaching them to take responsibility for themselves and their ideas," said Ann Marie Seely, head of Atlee High School's English department. "They understand the word 'cheating' better than 'plagiarism.' From day one, we talk about plagiarism - what it is, how it's done."

It has been 2 1/2 years since University of Virginia physics professor Louis A. Bloomfield referred 158 students to the school's Honor Committee to be investigated for plagiarism. That action made student plagiarism a hot topic in the media.

Since then, teachers have gotten savvier about the Internet and the myriad ways students can use it to cheat. Several types of plagiarism-detection software are available online, if schools want to spend the money for the service.

And teachers are being educated about what they can do to prevent and detect plagiarism.

At Atlee High in Hanover County, Seely and English teacher Wendy Edelman taught the faculty how to use to check students' work for plagiarism. They also have teamed up with Hanover High School library media specialist Julie Tait to teach seminars around Virginia.

Seely and Edelman use the plagiarism-detection database to spot-check assignments. But they also use it as a teaching tool, allowing students to run rough drafts through it and fix mistakes before handing in papers.

"It's not about catching them. It's about preventing them," said Edelman, who teaches 11th-grade English. "I always market it to kids as a tool to use to make sure you cite your sources."

In Henrico County, Wendy Sellors has led seminars for teachers and librarians on preventing "e-plagiarism" and rethinking assignments. She recommends that assignments require higher-order thinking skills, such as analysis or making comparisons, to prevent plagiarism.

"Assignments along those lines really require more than finding and regurgitating" information, said Sellors, an educational specialist for library information services for the school division.

"We don't want students to graduate with a cut-and-paste mentality. We really want them to think for themselves."

Plagiarism scholar Rebecca Moore Howard, a writing and rhetoric professor at Syracuse University, agrees with Sellors' advice on assignments. Howard urges teachers to focus on retooling assignments rather than using plagiarism-detection software, at least by itself.

"The Internet is changing our literate lives," she said. "We're still giving the same assignments."

Howard, who has taught seminars to college faculty, believes that teachers should give assignments that students care about. If students are engaged by the topic, they will want to do the work themselves, she said.

But she knows this isn't a foolproof method to stop plagiarism.

"There has always been plagiarism and there's always going to be," Howard said. "The Internet makes life a lot easier for those plagiarists."

Whether the Internet has made it easier for Richmond-area students to plagiarize is an issue that local teachers and students disagree about. Some say that it has, while others say no.

"In my 10th-grade year, I knew quite a few students who did go on the Internet and try to cheat on some big assignments," said Kristen Parsley, a senior at Hanover High who attended Atlee High until this year.

Arleen Reinhardt, the English department head at Manchester High School in Chesterfield County, said she does not think the Internet has increased the frequency of plagiarism.

But she does think it is harder to detect, because Web sites come and go. She swears by - it compares students' papers to the majority of the Web, as well as to one another and to a database of papers submitted to

"I've taught 11th grade for a long time. I can tell you that I'm not as suspicious now," Reinhardt said of the confidence gives her.

Sellors said that in Henrico, where high school students have been issued iBooks - and with them constant access to the Internet - the Web is being used properly by most students.

"Anytime you increase the ease of access . . . you're certainly increasing the temptation to do something negative," she said. "For the students who use it the right way, which is most students, you're also increasing their access to an incredible wealth of information."

Shannon Marklin, a 10th-grader at Henrico's Deep Run High School, said her teachers encourage students to evaluate the quality of the information available online.

"I can see where they're coming from," Marklin said. "Sometimes, the Internet's not right. Anybody can make a Web site."

In addition to making information easily available to students, the Internet gives them access to services that will write their essays for a fee. Or students can copy summaries of novels and plays from Web sites such as or

Teachers said students are less likely to buy a paper than to take a sentence or a paragraph from SparkNotes. Regardless of how students choose to cheat, teachers said, the plagiarism can be detected even without using software.

"If you're really familiar with their writing, it makes it so much easier. It jumps out at you," said Carleton, the Open High teacher.

That is how Seely, at Atlee High, knew that two students had copied chapter summaries at the end of the last school year.

"They cut-and-pasted chapter summaries that they found on Google," said Seely, who teaches 10th-graders. "I knew immediately."

And that is why Edelman, Seely's colleague, warns students that they will be caught if they plagiarize even once in her classes.

"I tell students, if you're going to cheat, start from the beginning and be consistent," Edelman said. "I'm not stupid."