Focus on Learning: Plagiarism

July 13, 2010

Today’s New York Times has an opinion piece by Brent Staples on plagiarism.  He deplores plagiarism, and notes it is on the rise, but his focus is not on ethics but on learning.  He quotes David Pritchard, a physics professor at M.I.T.: “the big sleeping dog here is not the moral issue.  The problem is that kids don’t learn if they don’t do the work.”  Pritchard has seen that M.I.T. students who copy answers from others “fall behind in understanding and become significantly more likely to fail.”

At Earlham we tend to focus on the ethical dimension of plagiarism.  “Principles and Practices,” the document that guides conduct in the Earlham community, has this to say about the subject in the section on integrity: “Academic integrity is particularly important in educational communities. These communities rely on all of their members pursuing truth honestly, scrupulously crediting the work of others, and taking credit only for one’s own work and discoveries.”  Our policy on academic integrity is here.

It is an ethical issue, and Staples brushes by that too quickly.  But he is right to address it as an issue of learning as well.  It is engagement with material, working through problems yourself, that induces learning. He attributes the rise in plagiarism to changes in technology.

“If we look closely at plagiarism as practiced by youngsters, we can see that they have a different relationship to the printed word than did thegenerations before them. When  many young people think of writing, they don’t think of fashioning original sentences into a sustained thought. They think of making something like a collage of found passages and ideas from the Internet.  ….  This habit of mind is already pervasive in the culture and will be difficult to roll back. But parents, teachers and policy makers need to understand that this is not just a matter of personal style or generational expression. It’s a question of whether we can preserve the methods through which education at its best teaches people to think critically and originally.”

He is hardly the first to make that connection, but I’m not  convinced that’s the sole or even main cause.  We have to be sure as teachers that we are clear about our exectations, and that the work we assign our students clearly puts the focus on their doing work from which they will learn as they do it.

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About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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