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By Dr. William Oliver Hedgepeth
Faculty Member, Transportation and Logistics Management, American Public University
Writing a research paper or case study can be daunting, even when a student picks his or her topic.
Online students know that their papers are due by 11:59 ET Sunday night and receive instructions to help them achieve a good grade. Still, there are times when excuses arise Sunday for why they need an extra day to turn in the assignment. Some students even resort to plagiarism in order to receive a good grade and get their assignments in on time.
Professors Often Face Cases of Plagiarism
The big problem that plagues professors in online college courses is plagiarism. The basic definition of plagiarism is stealing someone else’s words and using them as your own in your college research paper. For those of us who have earned a Ph.D., we understand very clearly the value of citing the words of others in our research papers.
At the start of each course, we ask students to see a statement on plagiarism and write a reply that they have read and understand the concept of plagiarism. They must also state that they will not use plagiarism when writing papers.
This is usually the first written assignment for a Week 1 class. Some students state their agreement very formally, while others simply say, “I read; I understand.”
Also, I reiterate the need to avoid plagiarism and to use proper American Psychological Association (APA) styles for in-line citations and reference lists. I provide a link to my short YouTube video about how to do a citation.
Those students who request an extension on the Sunday night deadline are usually the same students who struggle with their APA citations and even avoid having citations of any kind for quoted content. As a result, their paper gets marked as plagiarized.
Punishing Students for Plagiarism
When I receive a research paper from a student who has plagiarized from other sources, the paper will be full of quotes or full of facts and data. However, it does not show the reference to the source in the paper, except in the last page with the References list. Then, I know that the student did not get the meaning of plagiarism during that first week of class.
What is the punishment for a paper that meets the criteria of plagiarism? For decades, the punishment was an automatic grade of “F” for the paper. The student would also be thrown out of the course with an “F” grade and a reminder to retake the class next year. I have had to punish students in this way when I taught in face-to-face classrooms.
Students get punished in other ways as well. Being kicked out of a class for plagiarism may cause a student to lose a scholarship or to be obliged to repay tuition to the government or their employer. The student may encounter a more hostile work environment, get fired or demoted, or lose a pay raise.
Why Students Fall into the Plagiarism Trap
Students who get caught with plagiarized papers usually have good excuses. Often, they may have been too lazy to read all the book text, lessons and instructions when they first arrive in the online classroom.
Most of the online students I teach are in the military and many of them are attending college for the first time. They typically range in age from 25 to 55. These students want to earn a college degree to get ready for an upcoming civilian career.
Often, students who get caught in the plagiarism trap do so out of ignorance and laziness. A few have had bad teachers who did not care about ensuring their students could write properly and did not check their papers for plagiarism.
The anti-plagiarism instructions given in the online classroom are designed to encourage students to follow ethical behavior and to avoid punishment. But some students fail to pay heed to the simple steps to provide valid proof of a fact or concept or to avoid using words without proper citation in their papers. Many students are just afraid of doing a research paper or do not think their academic papers are a big deal.
Acting as Coaches to Help Students to Avoid Plagiarism
As teachers, we have to do more than merely push out instructions in the online classroom. We should not rely solely on hoping our students will take the time to learn the basic rules of research and writing.
How do we hold the student’s hand as they walk over the plagiarism trap? We become coaches, not teachers.
Coaches help others to achieve a goal through training and guidance. Coaches also build relationships with the people they coach.
Online professors can do the same with their students through more personalized messages. Creating that relationship with an online instructor starts with the first forum post, when students are required to provide a short biography of themselves and their reasons for taking the class.
When students first defines their history, their desires and their reasons for being in the class, it is incumbent on the teacher to find some aspect of a student’s background that the instructor and student have in common. That is the basis for forming an informal relationship.
For example, perhaps I have visited or lived in the same state as that student. After the student responds, I may post a reply about some restaurant or another interesting feature of that area.
As a teacher, you should look for common interests in each student’s initial welcome message. If necessary, do a Google search on that student’s location and find a vacation spot, a restaurant, a historic monument or another feature you like.
You have to do your own homework to build that relationship. But that is a part of true coaching.
Honest Communication Is Also a Part of Effective Coaching
While it’s easy to give a student an “F,” you serve that student better through communication. Write about why the paper was flagged as not correct. Point out the passages in error by highlighting those words or add notes in the paper at the point of the infraction.
Regular communication is vital to avoid a major incident like plagiarism. That communication may take the form of emails, direct messages or phone calls.
If students struggle with writing their papers, ask them to call you about any problem they are having. Be a good listener as well.
Make sure that they do the work of providing proper APA citations. Ask for a sample of a citation they plan to use for the next paper.
Talking to students about plagiarism is just a starting point. As faculty, we sometimes hear complaints of our students’ poor writing, poor organization of ideas, constant spelling errors and poor grammar. These students are the ones who need the most coaching.
A Wall Street Journal story on February 9, 2018 reported that online colleges or schools provide “greater flexibility and freedom” and “help students thrive.” That is what a coach does. Give your students the ability to succeed with guidance and training; build that bond with your students so that they know you care.
Does the coaching method work? You bet.
I have received multiple emails from students expressing their appreciation of this more personalized approach to teaching. It motivates students and helps them to have a more successful academic journey.
About the Author
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth is a full-time professor at American Public University (APU). He is the former program director of three academic programs: Reverse Logistics Management, Transportation and Logistics Management, and Government Contracting. Dr. Hedgepeth was a tenured associate professor of Logistics and chair of the Logistics Department at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He has published two books, RFID Metrics and How Grandma Braided the Rain.
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