March 12th, 2012

A Lesson in Academic Integrity as Students Feel the Injustice of Plagiarism


In an effort to make my lessons about plagiarism and the appropriate citation of sources more personal for the students in my rhetoric and research classes, I now use an assignment that forces them into the role of victim rather than thief. The results of my most recent experience with this approach were encouraging.

On a Friday approximately three weeks into the semester, I gave students this assignment: Create an original work that articulates your understanding of one of our university’s core values — integrity, generosity, servant leadership, hospitality and excellence. You may express your understanding through a poem, collage, song, brief essay, short story, slide show or two-minute video.

Freshmen are introduced to these core values in our First Year Experience seminar course, and I encouraged students to invest some time in their creations. “Have fun with this project,” I said. “Try to impress me and your peers with your creativity.” I promised each person 60 seconds to share his or her creation with the rest of the class the following Monday.

Some of their projects were trite or carelessly assembled, but many of the projects were excellent. After everyone had an opportunity to speak, I told students to move around the room to review the projects that had been shared and to identify the one they admired most. They were free to “claim” any of the projects in the room. I told them that more than one person could choose the same project and that not all of the projects in the room had to be selected by someone. I gave no other instructions, so students were free to select their own projects or choose someone else’s as the one they admired most.

Here is what happened. The students who had invested the least amount of time in the assignment selected the projects that clearly had required a great deal of creative thought and time to produce. A few of the students walked around the room and then returned to their own work. And most of the others wandered around until they found a project (other than their own) that they liked enough to “claim” as creative and admirable.

Then I shocked them with this instruction: “Cross out the name of the person who created that project and write your own name in its place. When I grade these assignments this afternoon, I will give credit to the student, or students, who claimed the work, not to the student who created it.” That is when our class session got interesting. Initially, no one spoke. Students stared at me, looked at one another for confirmation that they had heard me correctly, and then looked back at me for an explanation. I played dumb, asking if they had any questions. Of course they did. Several students asked why I would do such a thing. Two were openly angry, telling me that giving someone else credit for the work they had done was wrong. Several others said, “If I had known you were going to let someone else steal my work, I would not have wasted my time completing the assignment in the first place!”

A few students, however, were clearly relieved by this sudden turn of events. I asked one of the students, who had not done the assignment at all, how he felt about this new arrangement. He said, “Well, I feel pretty lucky right now, like I’m getting something good for free. But I also feel guilty for accepting a grade I didn’t earn.” He was conflicted, and the other students in the room were compassionate, not outraged, by his willingness to accept the “freebie.” One of their defenses for the student’s reasoning was that the consequence for taking credit for someone else’s work was significantly smaller than the consequence for taking a zero for his own failure to complete the assignment.

I collected the projects, and then encouraged students to talk more about what I had just done. One student shook his head and said, “Something is going on here. This just isn’t right.” A few comments later, another student connected the dots: “I get it now. This is exactly what we do when we plagiarize sources in our papers.”

I am not naïve enough to believe that all of the students were instantly convinced of the immorality of plagiarism, but I do believe more of my students understood what is at stake when they make decisions about how to use the information and ideas that they find in published sources. For a brief moment, they experienced the injustice of someone else taking credit for their work, which made them more susceptible to the appeal of academic integrity. And that’s a good place to begin instruction.

Deborah Zarka Miller (Fox) is an Assistant Professor of English at Anderson University where she teaches creative writing, composition and literature. Her creative non-fiction has appeared in three anthologies, and she released her first young adult novel, A Star for Robbins Chapel, in 2010.

  • Ellen Smyth

    Brilliantly awesome! I love it. Having students act out plagiarism and then draw their own conclusions will have a much more lasting impression than lecturing them on the wrongs. Plagiarizing is all so very abstract when students don't know the people from whom they steal. Thank you.

    • DZ Miller

      I was pleased that the exercise worked so effectively. I hope to find other ways to engage students with similarly abstract topics.

  • Fabio

    Extremely creative!

    To step in somebody´s shoes is a great way to internalise some experiences and to improve understanding. Thank you!!

    • DZ Miller

      Yes, the role reversal was probably the most beneficial part of the exercise.

  • Cindy Hollingsworth

    Great insight. Very creative. Thank you for sharing!!

  • Dave

    I love this idea BUT I fear that too many of my students may get exactly the wrong message – they may discover a new and easy way to get good grades, plagiarize.

    • Danny

      I seriously doubt there are many college students who have never heard of the idea of copying someone else's work before.

      I pile on to say, this is a brilliant idea. I've noted it on my blog ( with appropriate attribution, of course.

    • DZ Miller

      Perhaps, but I don't think we are introducing them to plagiarism by talking about it. That's kind of like saying we give teenagers the idea to have sex by talking honestly with them about their sexuality. The truth is, they are already fully aware of the issue.

  • Peter Tierney

    Please read "The Truth About Campus Cheating" by William M. Chace. It is in the Spring issue of The American Scholar.

    • Elaine Green


      I am interested in the article you mentioned, but I can't find it from this reference. Can you give me any more information?

      Thanks, Elaine

      • TekBek

        A Question of Honor
        By William Chace for The American Scholar, Spring 2012

        Cheating on campus undermines the reputation of our universities and the value of their degrees. Now is the time for students themselves to stop it

        FYI, to locate that, I just Googled® the phrase "The Truth About Campus Cheating" by William M. Chace" that I copied from Peter Tierney's comment above.

  • Don Ulin

    Interesting, but I'm still trying to imagine the follow-through. Do you stick to your guns and assign meaningful grades based on the "plagiarized" assignments (i.e. the ones students "claimed")? Or do you reverse your policy once students recognize that it was all just an elaborate model, experiment, or (as they might see it) hoax? If you stick to the unfair grades, I have to wonder (with Dave) whether it would send the wrong message: that cheating is easier and surer than honesty in a world that is fundamentally unfair anyway. If you reverse the policy and assign "fair" grades, does that diminish the integrity of the activity and perhaps even breed distrust among students who feel they have been manipulated?

    • Danny

      I was thinking this too when reading the article. I'd love to hear from Deborah how this plays out post discussion. I'd also love to hear some guidelines (or have us crowdsource them) for leading an effective discussion given potential volatility of the situation.

      • Rosemary Tyrrell

        I also wanted to know this. I think if handled carefully, this could be a marvelous object lesson, but if handled poorly, it could be an unmitigated disaster!

        Personally, I don't think my students would believe I was serious (they know me too well) and if they believed I was joking, my fear would be that they wouldn't take the lesson seriously, either.

        • J. Morse

          ". . . this could be a marvelous object lesson, but if handled poorly, it could be an unmitigated disaster!"

          I second this comment.

          While do I see how effective the situational lesson was, I have major concerns with what it took to carry it out:

          (a) If you don't grade as you say, you have lied to the students and one could also argue that you have emotionally manipulated them to prove a point. That's a pretty edgy position to be in. It sets up a situation in which a momentary lack of integrity with your students was supposed to be "okay" because it served a purpose. I surmise that the intent is to carry it off as if it was not meant to be a "lie" but somehow a teaching lesson–roll playing, perhaps? But the students didn't know that.

          Personally, if I were a student in that classroom, I would have felt lied to and manipulated for the sake of a teaching lesson. When I find I have been lied to, I feel disrespected. I wouldn't be comfortable treating my students that way. Obviously not everyone feels this strongly, but I think it is getting into an edgy area of teaching ethics.

          (b) If you do grade as you say, you have unfairly graded to make a point. My students would disrespect me for the rest of my time with them if I did that.

          • DZ Miller

            Once the students recognized that the entire exercise was an experiential metaphor, they were eager to discuss their thoughts and feelings about my announcement that they would receive credit for work they had stolen rather than for work they had created themselves. Our discussion lasted approximately 30 minutes, and in that time THEY exposed most of the ethical issues that I wanted to discuss as part of a "lesson" on academic integrity. Because I was transparent with them about my motivation for the exercise, none of them seemed to feel manipulated by it. And many of them expressed an appreciation for the directness of this approach. They said they had never considered plagiarism as an act with moral consequences but now they do.

    • DZ Miller

      No, I did not "follow through" and give students grades for the work they "stole" from their peers. Those who completed the assignment received a grade for the project they submitted. Those who didn't do the assignment received a zero.

  • Critical move, Deborah! Students discussing plagiarism/great concept!

  • Senita

    Very creative! Thank you for sharing.

  • Sugandha

    awesome. This article is in scarcity of words for the idea being thrown in the generation which is much much prone for it. Simply excellent article

  • This is such a great idea. I may have to steal it. heh

  • Joyce

    How clever! Love the idea.

  • Conred Maddox

    This is a great project that helps with the idea of ownership. I would add to this a exercise on ethos, or credibility of presentation. When the students begin recognize that citing builds their own credibility, they tend to work diligently at citing sources and providing intext citations (at least in the class I have taught so far). I also have my comp 100 classes write a paper on plagiarism, what it is; the consequences; how to avoid it; and what they learned. They can pick an audience – high school students, journalists, novelists, etc. What is excellent about the assignment you do, is the students learn that investment in a project has its rewards – beyond the grade, someone will want it as his or her own.

  • Hello Deborah:

    Thank you for providing a very interesting approach to addressing plagiarism in a proactive manner. I’m curious, did you have any plagiarism incidents after conducting this exercise?

    I wrote a post related to online education:
    Plagiarism in Online Schools: What Students Need to Know

    One of the issues I raised is making a distinction between accidental and intentional plagiarism. You’ve addressed intentional plagiarism. Do you take any proactive steps to teach students about avoiding accidental plagiarism?

    Dr. J

    • DZ Miller

      I usually address accidental plagiarism within the context of individual essays. My comments on their first drafts flag any passages of text that I believe are probably "borrowed" from another source. I make it clear that unless they include proper attribution in the revised draft, documenting the source in-text and on the Works Cited page, then they will be guilty of plagiarism, which I will them report to the university Provost. This usually gets the student's attention, and it reinforces the notion that crediting sources is their ethical responsibility.

  • susan gold smith

    I find this "assignment" to be an abusive use of the position/power of the instructor. I hope it would not pass an ethics committee's review. It is a thinly veiled scenario at best and the student that questioned the assignment had a clear point. It is a good idea to have the student understand the victim' s position, but please respect the student's intelligence while doing so.

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  • Neelam Choudhary

    this is what we call as 'negative education'…….student will himself imbibe the right ethics rather than by any coersion

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  • Gina Burkart

    What a powerful and meaningful lesson! Thanks for sharing it with us!

  • Kwena Matjekana

    Just the right body of information that I would like to share with the students. It is so helpful!

  • Judy Bodzioney

    The assignment is a great way to demonstrate academic integrity. Very clever.

  • Glyn Allbritton

    The aforementioned insight was a pleasure and learning experience. I never considered the idea of 'Reverse Strategy' when it came to Plagiarism. Again thanks for this insight as victim… Elder G. Edward Allbritton…

  • Lori McAllen

    Excellent idea and lesson. Very creative way to give ownership where ownership is due.

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  • Donna Meadows

    Love it, get them (us) thinking…..I'm surprised they didn't "get it" sooner. In other schools I feel certain things-ideas get thrown around that seem absolutely preposterous! Good job professor!

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