Plagiarism definition and "I will not plagiarize another's work" written on chalk board
Inside the Classroom

The “P” Word

person asking a question

Plagiarism. When I was an English teacher at Northern Arizona University I hated this word. Plagiarism is the bane of any English teacher’s existence. Why? Because, no matter what, no matter how many times you explain to students what it is and how to avoid it, you still have at least one student in each class who tries to pass off someone else’s work as his or her own. Insert heavy sigh here.

Know how to Define Plagiarism

Considering we live in a world in which information is readily available, it’s tricky for English teachers to define plagiarism. Students today do not seem to have a solid understanding of what original content is because of the way they consume information. They get their news on Twitter and Buzzfeed, they copy and paste from Wikipedia when asked to define a term or concept, and they see the blurring of intellectual property lines on a daily basis. Therefore, as a teacher, you need to define what plagiarism is for yourself, and then make it clear to your students. Give them explicit examples of plagiarism, and tell them why it’s wrong. Simply put: passing off someone else’s work as your own is plagiarism.

Make it Easy to Avoid

Once your students know what plagiarism is, you need to make sure they know how to not do it. One of the simplest ways to do this is to give them access to your plagiarism-checker software. Most English teachers, especially those who teach in a technology rich environment, have a way to check for plagiarism. This kind of software can run an essay through a database and highlight words or phrases that are taken from other sources. When students have access to this, they can clearly see which parts of their essay need to be cited or reworded. And this is what’s important, isn’t it? They need to properly credit their sources if they’re going to use other people’s ideas to frame their own.

Set Clear Expectations

Students also need to know exactly what will happen to them, their grade, and their education, if they’re caught plagiarizing. If your school or district operates on a zero-tolerance policy, your student may get a zero for the essay or the class. If your student is seeking a college scholarship, then a plagiarized essay might make a big difference in his or her future. It’s important that your students know exactly what the consequences will be at the start of the course. Then, even though it might be hard, you have to follow through on those consequences.

It’s a Tough Reality

I’ve had to give more than one student a zero for the whole semester because he or she submitted a plagiarized essay, and I never felt good about it. However, it was the English Department’s policy and I needed to follow through with the expectations I clearly laid out in the syllabus. The reality is that plagiarism is one of those problems with real-life penalties and we do a disservice to the students who we let slide.

Imagine what would happen if that student graduated high school or college not ever having faced the consequences of plagiarism. How far would that student get in his or her career without knowing how to form his or her own arguments or ideas? My guess is not very far.

About the Author


Rae Palmer

Rae has a BS in Journalism and a MA in English from Northern Arizona University. She has served as an ESL/ELL teacher and one-on-one tutor, writing tutor, freshman success coach, English teacher, writer, and editor. As a teacher, she felt privileged to work with hundreds of students with varying skill levels in both an online and traditional classroom setting. As a writer, she covered the education industry both on a national and a district level. This experience has given her deeper insight into the ever-changing world of education. She continued to help all learners achieve their full potential during her tenure with Edgenuity.