Looking Back @ Teaching Academic Honesty

Looking Back @ Teaching Academic HonestyAmong the many posts on my listservs are those about copyright, plagiarism, note-taking, and those other pesky Information Literacy topics I include under Academic Honesty. I did some checking and found that College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards refer to plagiarism, and Common Core State Standards refer to plagiarism, bibliographic information, and citation, i.e., the documentation, so that is what teachers are concerned with and what they come to us to “teach.”

However, to fully appreciate our role as school librarians in teaching Academic Honesty, I note that the AASL Standards for the 21st Century Learner in Action state that the school librarian provides students with the conceptual understanding of Academic Honesty:

  • Responsibilities 1.3.1 “Respect copyright/intellectual property rights of creators and producers.” (p13)
  • Responsibilities 1.3.3 “Follow ethical and legal guidelines in gathering and using information.” (p13)
  • Skills 3.1.6 “Use information and technology ethically and responsibly.” (p15)

A Positive Conceptual Focus

With this in mind, I approach Academic Honesty with a more positive conceptual focus than most folks. I begin with intellectual property and citation of sources for the bibliography. Why do I begin with these?

  • Intellectual property is the overriding concept from which copyright, public domain, fair use, and plagiarism stem.
  • Bibliographic citation needs to be the first thing students do with a source, because too often they forget to record the source and then can’t remember where they found information, either to return to it or to create their bibliography.

The positive focus is that giving someone credit for their intellectual property by citing them is the right thing to do. And I let students know that their products are their own intellectual property!

Next I use a short 3-minute video from Common Craft to transition into the concept of copyright. It focuses on the legal rights conveyed to owners of intellectual property, and I want students to understand this concept in order to understand the difference between the 3 methods of note-taking from textual material: by quoting, by paraphrasing, and by summarizing.

3 Methods of Notetaking


Quoting is usually well understood by older students, but I do review it and about including an in-line citation.

When I taught high school science, I was surprised how many students didn’t understand paraphrasing nor how to do it. Evidently this is a critical Information Literacy skill that we need to address earlier in their schooling as students begin gathering textual information. So, I spend time with students modeling how to paraphrase a short selection of text, and then helping them see that paraphrasing is still using someone else’s ideas—copyrighted intellectual property—so they need to cite the source when they include the paraphrased material in their end product.summarizing

I also spend time helping students learn to summarize, using a graphic organizer and short, 2-page articles from our library’s student magazines. I firmly believe that if we take more time modeling note-taking with students so they really learn and understand the 3 types, then we won’t need to spend so much time talking at them about what not to do.

Once students understand how note-taking relates to intellectual property and copyright, I use a short <3-minute video from Common Sense Media to transition to Fair Use and Public Domain. I want students to understand why they can legally use other people’s copyrighted intellectual property for their school assignment or use Public Domain material without copyright infringement. I stress that Academic Honesty means continuing to use in-document and bibliographic citation for information or media that isn’t theirs—it’s still someone else’s original intellectual creation.

Don’t “Dis” Honesty

Only after showing students the “honest” practices, do I explain that presenting someone else’s ideas, expressions, or creative work as your own is unethical. It’s an academically DIS-honest practice called plagiarismand we all know it’s poor form to “dis” someone!

I find that discussing consequences of plagiarism is unproductive. Most students are eager to do what’s right, but a few would waste time on minutiae just to see what I’ll say. So when someone asks “What happens if I plagiarize?” I ask these questions back:

  • Why do it wrong and then have to do it over?
  • Why risk my ill will and a bad grade when it’s so easy to do it right?
  • Why not learn the right way now, when doing it wrong later on can endanger your entire future in college or a career?

I tell them, the only question I’ll answer is one about true learning, as in, “How do I properly express my knowledge?

Lest you think my Academic Honesty unit sounds like a long drawn-out process, I use fewer than a dozen slides and can cover it in a single class period. Often I’ll use just the few selected slides I need for whatever aspect of Academic Honesty I need to discuss with students. I honestly don’t know if my more positive spin produces better results in student papers, but I do know that students come away with a much more positive outlook about doing their research papers!

Solving the Plagiarism Problem

My big concern about plagiarism is that it needn’t happen and we educators are the problem. How can we discourage kids from plagiarizing when we offer them no opportunity for their own original expressions? If a teacher comes to me about resources for a student research project and I see right away that it’s low-level Bloom, just begging to be copied from an encyclopedia or 3rd-grader’s website, I diplomatically suggest ways to rework the topic so it requires more in-depth research, more higher-level thinking skills, and a genuine expression of a kid’s own ideas and conclusions.

Here’s an example. A 7th grade research project asks students to choose one Greek or Roman god or goddess, research their attributes from a couple books and websites, then create a written paper or a PowerPoint of the information. Ho Hum…I’m yawning and so will they. My suggestion: Compare a Greek or Roman god or goddess with a current popular star from TV, film, music, or sports, explain the key attributes they share, and why you think these two were/are idolized. Now how could anyone plagiarize that? Every kid has a favorite star, someone they seek to emulate, and this assignment helps them examine the qualities they admire in this person and whether they really do want to be like them. They need to examine several Greek or Roman folks to decide who to compare, demanding more skillful analysis than the original assignment, and it helps them realize the continued need we humans have to look outside ourselves for help in coping with life.

Another example of a weak research project asks students to create a PowerPoint about a national or ethnic group that immigrated into Texas. I suggest they have students interview their own parents, grandparents, and other family members to discover when their family first emigrated to TX and create a scrapbook or online journal about their family. We don’t expect a family tree from the time of the conquistadores, but every kid can at least learn about the life of their parents and grandparents. Imagine if Alex Haley had never heard his family history? Roots would never have been written, turned into a TV phenomenon, and a generation of Americans would’ve never had their eyes opened to the real history of our country!

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