When you teach kids, especially in a relatively high stakes environment, you need to be prepared that they will tend to take shortcuts sometimes. I’m not saying that kids are cheaters or lazy per se; it’s just that they are often under too much pressure and taking shortcuts may lead to saving some energy for later when it will be most needed. There’s no need to be too judgmental but you do need to tell them that taking shortcuts is not always helpful – it may even be the wrong way.
What am I driving at? Well, I’ve just corrected a pile of book and film reviews. The students (B1-B2) were supposed to write about their favourite book or movie. In one of the lessons before the exam, we studied a couple of templates in their coursebooks. During this stage, I told them what language I expected them to use in their reviews but otherwise, there were no restrictions – not even a strictly given word limit. I encouraged them to write a draft; at this stage, they were allowed to use the Internet to look up all the information they needed.
The students did a great job and most of them got decent grades. One student, however, gave me a hard time; when I was reading through her writing earlier today, I realized that to a large extent, she had copied the text from the coursebook. She’d changed a few things here and there but otherwise, the texts were identical. At first, I wanted to give her a fail grade but then I realized that I hadn’t told the students explicitly that they should not write about the movie/book that is in their coursebook. I supposed that it was obvious. But was it?
The Reflective Questions for Teachers may come in handy now (credits to Andy Hockley and to ILC IH Brno Conference 2019).
My students were encouraged to use specific functional language in their book/film reviews, namely the opening sentences of each paragraph. This language could be found in example reviews in their coursebooks. One student, however, used a substantial part of the text found in the coursebook to write her review. In other words, her other sentences, as well as some of the facts, strongly resembled the ones in the coursebook.
What possible explanations are there for this event?
Unlike the other students in her class, she hadn’t prepared well, i.e. she hadn’t written the first draft, so later she probably didn’t know what to write about. Thus, she chose the easiest way out – she read the text in her coursebook right before the lesson and used what she remembered to write her own review. Since I hadn’t told the students not to write about this particular book, she actually didn’t break any rules. I hadn’t told them because I thought it was kind of obvious. Moreover, during the prep stage, when they discussed their favourite books/movies, nobody mentioned the one in the coursebook so it didn’t even occur to me somebody would write about it in the exam paper.
Having reflected upon the action, what will I do next. What will I do differently?
I haven’t graded her review and I probably won’t. She will have to write a new one. Next time, I will explicitly say that they must not write about the book which is in their coursebooks because it’s difficult to prove whether the text the student wrote during the exam had just been inspired by the text in the coursebook or whether the student had actually plagiarized it. Also, before the exam, I will make sure, again, that nobody is actually going to write about that specific book. How? I will ask. During the exam, I’ll monitor and peek at the students’ writings, at least at the very beginning, to check that nobody is writing about the book in their coursebooks.
Can I draw a general conclusion from this?
I have to be clear when giving instructions. The assumption that something is obvious will only get me into trouble. In fact, I can’t really punish students for taking shortcuts – they may not even realize they are shortcuts. It’s my responsibility to prevent this type of behaviour and educate students about plagiarism. However, the student in question should and will get feedback from me on this. And next time, I will not tolerate this and I will definitely take appropriate action, i.e. I will give her a fail grade.