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The English Department and I have developed an interesting piece of work over the last couple of years, with pupils developing an article based on something they’ve been studying in class, usually a novel or drama script, which is then added to the blog. My idea in suggesting this format was to promote a better understanding of copyrighted materials and the importance of not plagiarising.

And so, Fire Eaters by David Almond led to research on events of the 1960s; Dicken’s Oliver Twist lends itself to Victorians; and Millions by Frank Cottrell Boyce practically demands an analysis of a saint. It’s good to give the pupils a question to answer – e.g. Which endangered animal would you save? – but it depends what we agree on for the investigation topic.

This is not an easy task and it takes a number of weeks, including the initial planning, research, writing, and layout stages. The success criteria for blog articles demand:

  • the inclusion of at least one copyright free image
  • at least one hyperlink to another website
  • the inclusion of only relevant information
  • a complete lack of plagiarism
  • a complete lack of bias
  • a layout which makes it easy to read
  • approximately 300-500 words in total
  • relevant tags and categories
  • and it has to make sense, with proper grammar and spelling!

Naturally there are problems with such complex investigations. We want our young people to select something that interests them, but there still has to be enough information available that they can understand. Sometimes there is so much information that selecting the ‘important’ stuff can be a struggle. But by far the worst problem is plagiarism.

People often misunderstand plagiarism. They get the idea that it’s not nice to claim someone else’s work as their own, but to be honest, they don’t think it’s that important. With pupils, much of that attitude is because, in their words, it’s only a school project, but it’s also because they don’t quite get the idea.

Pupils are commonly told to ‘put it into your own words’, but that’s an easily misunderstood phrase. Most children (and a fair number of adults) will assume that you can copy chunks of someone’s work, and genuinely make it yours by changing one or two words within a sentence. It’s easily spotted through sentence structures and vocabulary not normally found in the world of 13 year olds. And often they’re surprised that what they’ve written isn’t acceptable. Some won’t care, but often it’s not necessarily deliberate.

However, the latest classes to undertake the blogging tasks took plagiarism to new levels of insanity. Bet you didn’t know tigers were crepuscular did you? Well, I didn’t until it was copied from Wikipedia, and I know where it came from because it was so easily found, in fact it was almost word for word. When the girl was asked if she knew what the word ‘crepuscular’ meant, her reply was that her partner had written that part, and it was nothing to do with her. This partnership eventually solved the crepuscular problem by adding a definition to their article (which I thought was quite clever actually, even though the rest of their work was still plagiarised to pieces!)

So what was happening? We looked back at their notes, and those who had plagiarised didn’t have much written down. We always have a limited time for information gathering to encourage pupils to get to work right away, and these chaps didn’t have enough material. So when they came to write their articles on WordPress, they just copied and pasted from another website while the staff were helping other pupils and made a couple of changes. Who’s going to notice, right? Who’s going to care, so long as the work is done?

Unfortunately, for that particular point of view, we did notice, and we did care. So those classes got a bit of a talking to, but more importantly, we obviously had to change the way this task was undertaken.

  • First of all, we insisted their notes were mind-mapped, to prevent copying of sentences or paragraphs. It’s also much easier to see at a glance how much information has been gathered – written notes can disguise duplication of material. Plus, synthesizing the data is much easier because it’s already been laid out under specific headings.
  • Secondly, we removed temptation by making sure they handwrote their articles, and didn’t have access to the internet. In fact, it worked much better when the writing was done in the classroom rather than the Library.
  • We had always asked the pupils to hand in a bibliography, but now we insisted that the sources were listed at the end of the article.
  • Finally, I’ve always spoken about the importance of not plagiarising, but I’ve now dedicated one lesson to explaining it in more detail.

These are all simple things, but they emphasise our zero tolerance of plagiarism.

The latest class to participate in the exercise has followed this new structure, and the plagiarism has vanished. It’s taken a little longer than before, but we haven’t had to continually ask pupils to make changes, so it’s a much cleaner finish. After all, if you don’t have the original in front of you, it’s almost impossible to copy it; once it’s there, it’s hard to avoid.

And just in case you wanted to know:

Crepuscular adj. Zoology Becoming active at twilight or before sunrise, as do bats and certain insects and birds.