New teacher diaries

To catch a plagiarist

Recently I found myself identifying with these words spoken by Liam Neeson’s character in the movie “Taken”: “What I do have is a very particular set of skills. Skills that I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you.”

Now, my teaching career is not yet “very long,” but I have honed some particular skills during my years in the classroom. Spotting plagiarism is one of them.

I assigned my high school Spanish students the following project: Choose one holiday from a list of celebrations in Spanish-speaking countries and write a three-page research paper, including a picture. I had an awesome list of religious and secular celebrations, holidays from many different Spanish-speaking countries, holidays that had to do with fashion or animals or food. I also provided a list of suggested things to write about.

Although this assignment was for a Spanish class, I asked for my students to complete the assignment in English. Why? I’ve found that very few second-year Spanish students have the foreign-language skills to complete a successful research paper; many students end up relying on online translators or have Spanish-speaking friends “help” with the assignment, and I wanted to avoid these scenarios, which, in general, earn students a zero.

Another thing that I won’t tolerate is plagiarism. I made sure to write at the bottom of the assignment sheet: “Please refer back to our class’s plagiarism policy which can be found at the end of the student contract you and your parents signed in September.”

Unfortunately I think the warning is where I went wrong! I’m pretty sure my students read to the end of the assignment and read the word “plagiarism” and thought to themselves: “Oh yeah! I’ll just do that! I don’t need to do my project at all.”


I caught so many plagiarists! It was so easy to catch these copiers that I didn’t even have to tap into the many skills acquired over many years à la Liam Neeson’s character. The kids who plagiarized pretty much all used the same websites, Wikipedia being one of the most popular, and despite having a list of about 20 holidays they all wrote about the same three or four.

When I suspect plagiarism, I turn to trusty Google and type in the phrase in question. If I find a match, I print the Web page and highlight everything that has been copied. I staple everything together and return it to the student with an explanation and a grade of zero.

Some students actually plagiarized all three pages. I was shocked and appalled. I’m also offended that they didn’t think I’d question their frequent use of the word “lorries.” Really, guys?

I had one student come to me with tears in her eyes — because this grade counted in the test/quiz/project category, the grades of students who plagiarized dropped drastically. When I asked her why she was upset now after making the choice to copy directly from the Internet, she replied, “I didn’t know it would affect my grade that much.”

Now, I know 10th- and 11th-grade students have been warned of this in other classes. They should know better. And though I hate to see a student crying, hopefully she (and the others) will remember that it’s wrong to pass off other people’s work as your own, and that real learning takes a little more effort than copy and paste.

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