Doing the "Write" Thing: Reflections on Academic Integrity

Gigi Peterson, December 2008

Ninth-grade fingers flew over keyboards in fall 2002. Clicking, copying, and pasting, they prepared PowerPoint presentations on ancient civilizations. This student-centered activity incorporated technology, emphasized visuals as well as text, and engaged a room full of teens. The students certainly exhibited enthusiasm and focus. Yet their PowerPoint assemblages contained no citations and no quotation marks for the chunks of text lifted verbatim from “research finds.” The experience of watching them was eye opening.

The Problem: “Preparing for the Exam” and Plagiarism

My position bridges practices at the junior-high and high school level, and expectations in college and beyond. As a teacher of college-level history and a teacher of teachers, I also teach about academic integrity. While increased plagiarism is a national problem with multiple causes, I believe some secondary-level practices in my state contribute to problems at the college level. Similar patterns may occur in other educational systems.

My social studies work inspires appreciation for challenges faced by counterparts at the secondary level. We need to respect teachers who struggle daily to meet those challenges, even as we consider the number of students who are not adequately prepared for college-level expectations. Articles and studies abound about deficits in writing skills, and here I focus on a specific problem: the treatment of text taken from writing that is not one’s own. While many social studies teachers devote classroom time to proper citation, paraphrasing, and other techniques, I believe that at least in New York State they are, to some extent, “bucking the system.” Pressured as all teachers are to have students score well on standardized tests, those who teach beyond the test must be applauded, for sometimes they are taking professional risks. What about those who are not prepared to teach academic integrity techniques, or who lack institutional support to do so? Their students also end up in college.

A leader in standardized testing, New York State has had Regents exams in secondary-level subject areas since the 1890s. In recent years its Department of Education (NYSED) changed high school graduation requirements so that now nearly all students must earn a Regents diploma. Some consequences of this change—that ultimately affect student writing—are (1) lowering of what constitutes “passing scores”; (2) pressure on teachers and administrators to improve passing rates as a measure of “success”; (3) the proliferation of commercial exam preparation materials that emphasize study of past tests, including patterns and strategies for test items, and the content knowledge that is tested.1 In sum, multiple forces, some of them commercial, emphasize a focus on “the test.”

Happily, excellent teachers and motivated students teach and learn beyond what “the system” defines as “success.” As my former student Ryan Delaney noted, “The most encouraging thing I have seen in the schools is the stressing of higher-order, critical thinking questions rather than Regents style, fact-based questions. I have seen this trend in Regents level as well as advanced courses.” Still, state standards—and practices that meet them at the most basic level—have implications for academic integrity. My reflections are based on official NYS Regents exam scoring guides for secondary social studies exams, classroom observations, reviews of textbooks and other teaching materials, and conversations with teachers and students.

The Regents “Document-Based Question Generic Scoring Rubric” provides guidelines for evaluating, on a five-point scale, “DBQs,” as such questions are known. DBQs aim at student analysis of sources.2 Before writing an essay, students answer a series of “scaffolded questions” that progress from foundational questions that are quite literal (“Who is the author?) to higher-level questions requiring interpretation and outside knowledge. Among the aims of the state’s 2004 revision of the rubric was “Goal #4: To clarify the issue of using information copied directly from documents in the DBQ essay.” Here is troubling acceptance of practices that can lead students to commit academic dishonesty.

While limited copying, using appropriate citation, to support positions or emphasize a particular point is encouraged as a legitimate social studies writing skill, massive or indiscriminate copying from the documents is not appropriate. The phrases [in the revised rubric] “the response consists primarily of relevant information copied from the documents” (at score point 2) and “the response consists primarily of relevant and irrelevant information copied from the documents” (at score point 1) makes [sic] a distinction regarding both the extent of the material copied and the selection of the material copied. 3 [author’s emphasis]

In essence, student essays may copy chunks of text without using quotation marks as long as the text is “primarily…relevant.” “Limited” and “massive” are never defined—indeed, the rubrics address “relevancy” but not “extent.” Nor is “appropriate citation” defined, though the official “specific rubrics” and “anchor [sample] essays” demonstrate what is acceptable: document numbers, short titles, topics, references to authors. Certainly, timed exams involve looser citation standards than papers, but the treatment of text quoted verbatim is notable—it need not be encased in quotation marks. Several Regents scoring guides present “anchor essays” in which copied chunks of prose are acceptable. Some of the “documents” may be secondary sources, so in essence students may copy others’ analyses, and not just “evidence.” Reinforcing the practice of “text transfer” are many prefabricated worksheets produced by textbook companies.

Teachers at all levels need to be aware of these practices and how they shape students’ habits for the future. In 2005 I surveyed some 50 senior history/social studies majors about their background in academic integrity practices, including when, in their precollege educations, they were taught proper citation and paraphrasing techniques. A striking number reported still-hazy understandings of these skills, and concern about being prepared to teach such topics. Surveys of juniors and first-year students in 2007 revealed many students with similar deficits. Combined with teaching experiences, the surveys reinforced these conclusions:

  • College-level academic performance requires (or should require) academic integrity, but not all students leave high school with a clear understanding of what that means or how it can be achieved.
  • College students know that “citations” are needed for the work of others, but some are unclear about proper treatment of direct quotations. Some believe a citation, possibly coupled with the changing of a few words, covers usage of another’s prose.
  • Various factors shape instruction of students in grades 7–12 about academic integrity practices. Lucky students have teachers familiar with proper techniques, committed to and skilled in teaching them. However, some teachers lack needed understanding. Additionally, test pressures and even “official” rubrics may encourage teachers and/or students to adopt minimalist strategies for “success” that at the college level should land them in trouble.

Some Solutions: Teaching and Modeling Academic Integrity

What can instructors at every level do to address these issues?

  1. Teacher education programs must train candidates to teach academic integrity. Teacher candidates must understand proper practices, design assignments that reinforce them, and explicitly develop student skills. Fourth graders can learn to “put things in their own words” instead of copying text. By the seventh grade, students should be using quotation marks around others’ words, even on timed exams. Better yet, they should be using their own words. By the eleventh grade, students should process others’ information and ideas and integrate these into their own arguments with proper citation and quotation.
  2. K–12 teachers need to be supported in teaching academic integrity techniques, including citation and paraphrasing, and these should be taught in content areas as well as language arts classes. Worksheets, exam rubrics, and other resources that reinforce sloppy practices need to be retired.
  3. College-level teachers seeking to avoid students’ claims that they “didn’t know” about proper practices can provide students with resources and direct instruction on the methods of academic integrity. This can be done using examples from the discipline, thus fusing content and skills learning.
  4. Teachers must model proper acknowledgement of others’ work, both in their own writing and in classroom practice. Our own attention to academic integrity shapes student understanding and behavior, public perceptions of the discipline, and reputations and rewards within the profession.

Challenged by plagiarism problems and guided by these observations, I developed a mini-lesson that focuses on paraphrasing and note-taking practices and which can be adapted by any instructor. Time invested in teaching about doing the right thing in writing pays off in reduced plagiarism and in student feedback about what was previously misunderstood. In addition to direct instruction, students receive handouts summarizing the presentation and on online resources and “special citation situations”—such as the use of quotations gleaned from a secondary source and crediting of background material (the handout and related notes are also available online).

As classroom teachers we ourselves must also model integrity. Good teachers understand the nature of acceptable inspiration and “borrowing” for the classroom, and its distinction from standards for written work. Intellectual debts can be acknowledged in ways that include: (1) providing complete citations for readings, and at least authors and titles for quotations in lectures, PowerPoint presentations, and so on; and (2) verbally citing—in lectures—authors and titles from whom we draw specialized information and concepts. This is a more honest way to adapt the timeworn advice to “crib lecture ideas” from a reputable secondary work.

Teacher education students may hear from veteran teachers comments like, “Steal all the ideas and materials you can,” and online lesson plans tempt some teacher candidates to turn in materials not their own.4 I tell them to “adapt, not adopt.” Just as in a paper, to teach a successful lesson one must process content and concepts oneself.

Direct instruction and the reporting of cheating require extra effort and in the case of the latter, results in aggravation. College-level instructors in content courses are not duty-bound to provide academic integrity instruction—though it may be wise for them to do so. However, it is our duty to uphold standards through reporting and official action, however painful that may be.5 Many of us know of students who learned from consequences and went on to accomplishments that were ethically attained. We also know of both high- and low-profile cases, from the business world to politics, from academia to media, in which plagiarism cost reputations and even jobs. These are further reminders of our obligations, as teachers and scholars, to “Do the Write Thing.”

—Gigi Peterson is assistant professor of history and coordinates the secondary social studies program at the State University of New York at Cortland.

Notes

1. In the 1970s, I used “Regents Review” that summarized content for topics ranging from chemistry to foreign languages. Current versions (such as the Barron’s series) are simply volumes of reprinted tests.

2. The rubric and discussion of its 2004 revision can be viewed at http://www.emsc.nysed.gov/osa/important-notices/importantnoticearch/revised_rubric_glob_04.pdf. Secondary social studies Regents exams are administered in eighth, tenth, and eleventh grades. The DBQ sources are usually, but not always, primary. For instance, the January 2007 U.S. History Regents exam (11th grade) included a DBQ on foreign policy with excerpts from nine documents, including a captioned photo from a Sixties Chronicle (no date provided), a New York Times article, and a Foreign Affairs article. www.nysedregents.org/testing/socstre/ushgrg-107.pdf.

3. Office of State Assessment, State Education Department, The University of the State of New York, “Revised Generic Scoring Rubric for Regents Examinations in Global History and Geography, Beginning in June 2004 and United States History and Government, Beginning in January 2005,” March 2004. Notable too is that according to the rubric, 4- and 5-point essays have introductions and conclusions “that are beyond a restatement of the theme” – but the development and support of a thesis is not required. This too shapes papers received at the college level.

4. Lesson plans comprised of cut-and-pasted teaching materials from others usually mirror the incoherence of patched-together academic papers, often also with inaccuracies from questionable sources.

5. This would include the all-too-common situation in which those same students write evaluations upon which retention and promotion decisions may rest.