How do you know if your students plagiarize writings?

Alex S

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Hi all!

The question itself is in the title, as you can see.

Actually, the issue of plagiarism in academic writings never bothered me. Until now. My students are all K-7 and K-8, and I didn't think of them plagiarizing essays: just checked writings for grammar and arguments, and that was it.

But last week I got a homework from Ashton, my 13-year-old mentee. The task was to write a review of his favorite book, and he chose "Atlas Shrugged" by Ayn Rand. Everything was ok, except my impression this essay was structured and reasoned by a savvy scholar rather than a K-8 pupil. I don't wanna say that Ashton is stupid, you know, but I read his previous works - and the difference is drastic.

Checked his review for duplications with online tools (PlagiarismCheck.org and Grammarly Plagiarism Checker in particular), and both reported 95% of originality. So, I am confused.

Any thoughts? Shall I try any other tools? Any alternative tricks to use for identifying plagiarism in students writings? Or, maybe I just have it in for Ashton?

Thanks!
 
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J

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I think the short answer is: You can't. You have done your due diligence, and that's all you can do.

Take a step back and ask yourself, What was the purpose of the assignment? I suspect it was to make the student think about a book and put his ideas 'on paper'. Your research has shown that he either:
A. Truly did work and think and write an original review. His work has improved- good! OR
B. Put enough work into reordering the words to fool the 'system', which is more-or-less the same thing, isn't it? How many really new ideas are there about Atlas Shrugged?

You might consider to have a meeting with him to say something like, "This was quite an improvement. I'll be looking for you to keep up the good work." If he's plagiarizing, he can't keep it up forever. Any kid who claims Atlas Shrugged is his favorite book needs some watching...:)
 

Raymott

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Or, he could be paying or bullying someone smarter to write it, or edit it, for him - in which case, you won't find the original.
 

emsr2d2

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Here's a way to find out or, at least, to give you a clue. The next time you have a class with him, announce right at the start of the class that you're setting a surprise test. Each student has to write an essay about their favourite book, right there and then, during the class. They are not allowed to use any notes, dictionaries, the internet or the book itself. No prep time. Nothing. They simply have to hand in an essay at the end of the class. That should give you an idea of what they can write with no help and you can look at Ashton's essay and see if it bears any relation to the one he gave you last week, in terms of quality, ideas, standard of English etc.
 

Raymott

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Or you could ask him to explain a certain sentence that you don't think he understands on the pretext that you find it unclear. "Why did you phrase it this way?" might be a pertinent question.
 
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Tdol

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That's a good idea- he can be tested readily on stuff he knows. Sudden dramatic improvements are not to be ignored. If he is using a professional service rather than copying essays from the web, plagiarism finders will not be much use as they are not looking for original text. Ask him what other books of hers he has read. If he can't come up with a single title, it's unlikely he has managed to be this focused on one particular work. Ask for a quote- all Ayn Rand fans, seemingly, can quote her endlessly and point people to the scenes that made an impression on them.
 

Alex S

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Thank you all for your comments!
 
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