Guest Contributor: Audrey A. Wick, Blinn College. 

Today, Audrey Wick shares some of the steps she’s taken to address the pernicious issue of plagiarism in her courses. How do you fight plagiarism in your course? Are there specific tools or measures that have been the most effective? Share your comments below.

It was a sweet essay from one of my first-semester composition students about the birth of her child. The narrative contained all the trappings of an effective inaugural student composition: it was written on-prompt, it was formatted accordingly to MLA conventions, it contained a clear opening with a discernible thesis statement—and, of course, the essay specified lots of personal details about the child’s birth, including weight, length, and time of arrival.

So imagine my surprise when I realized this essay was not the student’s original work: the exact essay about this baby’s arrival was posted to someone’s personal blog online—and that blog entry, written well before our semester has begun, was not authored by my student. What I thought was a plagiarism-proof assignment (“Write about a single event in your life that changed it forever”) was suddenly not so plagiarism-proof.

Today’s access to electronic originality checkers—which find instances of plagiarism by matching student writing to previously published content on live and archived web pages, in periodicals, in e-books, on social networking sites, and more— has certainly changed how instructors teach. Before originality checkers, I would have never dreamed a student would plagiarize a personal narrative; today, I know with certainty that it happens.

Was my student a mother? Did my student know the author from whom she was lifting content? After her incident, I still don’t know answers to these questions. But I know if you are an instructor who thinks your students don’t plagiarize, you are wrong: they do, and you probably just haven’t caught them yet.

Originality checkers are easy to use and provide instantaneous feedback, often in an easy-to-read, color-coded draft that can be part of your class’ permanent record. Students populate themselves into the electronic system, meaning there is little additional work for the instructor in terms of set-up. Some originality checkers are free, and some are available through a paid subscription, like TurnItIn. Some are also part of digital solution suites, like in Cengage Learning’s Enhanced InSite.

As an instructor, I like that I control how I use the tool: I can let students see the report or keep it private, I can exclude certain content, and I can even match essays between classes and semesters to prevent recycled content from students who may attempt to collaborate or even submit the exact same essay (yes, it’s happened!).

I’m glad to have access to originality checkers as a tool to ensure the authenticity of student work. This helps me retain high quality standards in my class while also allowing me to focus on other tasks of helping my students learn without that nagging question: “Did my student really write this?” Now I can know—for sure.

Audrey A. Wick is a full-time English professor and kinesiology instructor at Blinn College, a two-year college with four campuses in central Texas. She serves as a TeamUP Faculty Advisor and Technology Power User for Cengage Learning.