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Hartwig, David W. Student Understanding of Plagiarism. TETYC, Sept. 2015. Posted 09/22/2015.

Hartwig, David W. “Student Plagiarism and First-Year Composition: A Study.” Teaching English in the Two-Year College 43.1 (2015): 38-56. Web. 10 Sept. 2015.

David W. Hartwig studied students’ comprehension of plagiarism after encountering it in various forms during his first appointment as a writing teacher at a community college. Of sixty-four students in his first-year classes, eight (12.5%) had committed “some form of apparent plagiarism”; only two were “egregious” and “intentional” (38). These experiences led Hartwig to examine attitudes and approaches to plagiarism in the composition literature and to design a study to better understand what students at his institution knew about plagiarism and how well they were able to apply their knowledge.

One student’s comment, on being told his paper had come from an online paper mill, that he didn’t “know how [his] paper got there” led Hartwig to examine contentions that students bring deliberate strategies for plagiarism from high school. This charge did not resonate with Hartwig’s experiences, which suggested that “lack of knowledge and skill” were more to blame (38), and inspired his concern that his teaching methods, although in line with those of his colleagues, might not be adequately informing students about the legitimate use of research materials (38-39).

Hartwig recounts claims that students participate in a culture in which writing and the standards for use of material are much different from those promoted by their college teachers. According to this view, students see public instances of plagiarism treated “light[ly]” and are more likely to be influenced by peer culture than by academic perceptions and rules (39). To gauge the prevalence of plagiarism, Hartwig presents studies encompassing the 1990s by Donald L. McCabe, Linda Klebe Treviño, and Kenneth D. Butterfield that show student mishandling of source material to be “a persistent problem” that can be somewhat ameliorated with honor codes (40).

Hartwig suggests that challenging the concept of the individual author has burdened scholars who hope to help students understand this abstract idea while simultaneously discouraging what continues to be seen as academic dishonesty (40-41). His review of current attitudes toward plagiarism among composition scholars focuses on the question of “intention” (41; emphasis original) as incorporated into the definition of plagiarism by the Council of Writing Program Administrators (41). Noting the WPA claim that many discussions of plagiarism fail to observe the distinctions in its definition and arguing that intention can be hard to discern in actual student behavior, Hartwig addresses Rebecca Moore Howard’s concept of “patchwriting,” in which students incompletely translate source material into their own words. Hartwig reports that Howard encourages compositionists to see patchwriting as “an essential part of the learning process” and to develop pedagogies that “strive to move [students] beyond” the practice rather than to punish it (41).

Concluding that students are confused about the correct use of sources and that faculty often “do not understand what students are attempting when they exhibit plagiarism-like writing,” Hartwig conducted a study to compare what students know about plagiarism upon entering a first-year-writing class with what they know after completing the class (42).

For the study, students anonymously completed a ten-question quiz at the beginning and end of the term. The quiz assessed “objective” knowledge by asking students to identify specific actions as plagiarism and to demonstrate a basic knowledge of what and how to cite. The final three questions addressed knowledge applied “in practice” by asking students to determine whether actual examples did exhibit plagiarism (42-45, 49). Clarifying that the results were not used to evaluate individual teaching and that data were not attached to individuals or sections, Hartwig notes that the questions included the “admittedly problematic” issue of “common knowledge,” but states that the question was refined through piloting so that only one correct answer was possible (43-44). Similarly, some participants noted that students might be confused by a question about citation format because many Internet sources do not include page numbers; Hartwig points to the widespread availability of pdfs with original pagination but urges future consideration of this concern (44).

Limitations included a drop-off in enrollment from students taking the pre-test, with only 68% taking the post-test. Technological limitations also prevented fine-grained demographic analysis and tracking of individual student improvement (45-46). Finally, faculty freedom in course design meant that “pedagogies varied widely,” and it was not possible to link any performance measure to particular teaching strategies (46). However, the results indicated very little divergence from the mean despite this diversity.

Hartwig’s findings reject claims that students come into college knowing little about plagiarism and that ongoing plagiarism can be attributed to “flawed teaching” in college classes (48). However, his study did support the contention that “student plagiarism was the result of students’ failure to fully understand the conventions of citing sources” (48). Students did quite well on the “objective” portions of the test both before and after the first-year classes, recognizing, for example, that working with tutors in the Writing Center is sanctioned but that providing a paper to another student to turn in as her own is not (43). Similarly, they knew that quotations, paraphrases, and other forms of borrowing were to be cited and knew basic MLA format (43). They had much more difficulty recognizing patchwriting and incorrect citation in actual passages; results showed inconsistent improvement on this portion across the terms tested (47-48).

Hartwig traces many problems to issues of reading. Quoting Shelley Angelie-Carter, Hartwig contends that students “‘trying on’ academic discourse” struggle with jargon and basic comprehension (49). In fact, he concludes, the three questions that asked students to apply their objective knowledge to actual passages “tested students almost as much on their close reading skills as on their knowledge of plagiarism” (50).

Hartwig recommends continuing to refine definitions, in particular involving students more actively in these discussions (51). He also urges “decriminaliz[ing] patchwriting” (51) because it is an indication of students’ comprehension, not their honesty. He argues for foregrounding critical reading in conjunction with writing and developing strategies for instructors to pay closer attention to students’ actual handling of sources while respecting that most writing instructors have massive workloads that preclude such practices as reading all sources (52-53). In Hartwig’s view, asking that faculty across campus share in helping students recognize best citation and synthesis practices as well as encouraging administrative efforts to treat instances of plagiarism as individual cases will also help writing instructors take a more proactive approach to the steps students must take—including patchwriting—toward effective use of sources (53-54).