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UIC TA Handbook - Plagiarism: A TA's Experience

 By an unnamed former Teaching Assistant

 

I had no idea what I was in for when I confronted a student for plagiarizing portions of a term paper. My first semester as a teaching assistant I had to face one of the most difficult classroom challenges!

For my teaching assignment, I led a discussion section of 35 students and was responsible for grading all of my section's assignments for the entire semester.

On the second writing assignment, three students plagiarized. Two students had collaborated on the assignment -- half of each paper was almost verbatim. The third student put more effort into concealing his duplicity. He began each sentence using his own words, and then followed with a direct excerpt from the assigned text.

I brought the situation to the attention of my faculty supervisor. He instructed me to confront the students and went on to explain that most students quickly confess their mistake. The penalty for plagiarism, he added, would be a failing grade for the assignment.

The two students who had copied off one another never came to see me. As my faculty supervisor instructed, I failed each on the assignment. The third student was extremely eager to discuss his paper with me. I explained to him that I thought he had copied text from the assigned reading and pointed out specific examples.

I then asked the student if he understood the issue of plagiarism. (My faculty supervisor had given the class a ten-minute lecture on plagiarism at the beginning of the semester.) The student explained that he had learned in high school that it was acceptable to borrow a few words here and there without using quotation marks and without using a proper citation. When I explained the university policy on plagiarism, the student claimed that all the words were, in fact, his own. The student told me that he was valedictorian of his class, so despite his first semester freshman status he was capable of producing such high quality work.

I told the student that I would take another look at his paper and that I would refer to page numbers in the assigned text to demonstrate all of the examples of copying that I had found. I asked him to return in one week.

At the beginning of the next week, I felt that the student attempted to bully me at every opportunity wanting to know why I had not finished reexamining his paper. I explained that this would take a full week and that I had opted to get a second opinion from the other teaching assistant assigned to the course.

In retrospect at this point, I should have turned the matter over to my faculty supervisor. However, I felt compelled to resolve the conflict on my own. I was determined not to have this belligerent and disrespectful student get the better of me.

I sought the advice of other faculty in the department. Their responses to handling this situation varied greatly. One suggested that I should automatically down-grade students         who I suspected have plagiarized on assignments, except in the most obvious instances of dishonesty. An accusation of plagiarism is a messy business, he explained, this approach will save you a lot of aggravation and time. The second faculty member wanted to know why I was handling this matter in the first place - my faculty supervisor should have taken over the problem from the beginning. And, finally, the third time was the charm. The last faculty member I approached offered a softer approach. He suggested that I consider what penalty would teach the student the best lesson. Did the student really understand the issue of plagiarism? He recommended that I, again, explain the university guidelines for plagiarism and then require the student to rewrite the assignment - the extra work involved and the trauma of having been accused of plagiarism is enough to deter most students from future acts of academic dishonesty.

A fellow TA recommended that I give the student the benefit of the doubt. Although he had found a handful of examples where the student had borrowed parts of sentences or particular phrases from the assigned reading, he suggested that the student may not have understood the issue of plagiarism.

The other TA and I went to the student and explained that this situation was a close call and that other professors or teaching assistants may not be so lenient in their evaluation of his work. I also reminded him to follow proper guidelines in citing other author's work. Since it was finals week, I did not require the student to rewrite the assignment.

I discovered that plagiarism is not always clear cut and that it is sometimes difficult to prove your case. I learned a number of lessons about confronting students with the issue of plagiarism: review the university guidelines regarding plagiarism and academic dishonesty, notify your faculty supervisor before you take any action, show your faculty supervisor your documentation (remember that you may need him or her to back you if the student disagrees with your decision), carefully document each instance of plagiarism before you meet with the student, and to avoid misinterpretation when discussing the situation with the student be as straight forward and direct as possible.

Dealing with this situation my first semester as a teaching assistant was a challenging experience along with frustrating and stressful. Hopefully you can learn from my experience when faced with a similar situation.   

Editor’s note:  The Office of the Dean of Students handles formal complaints of plagiarism in class assignments. If a TA and the faculty supervisor cannot, or do not wish to, handle an incident informally (i.e. meeting with the student and addressing the alleged plagiarism), a formal complaint may be filed. The Academic Integrity Misconduct Incident Report, as well as contact and other information may be found at https://dos.uic.edu/.  Note that the student is given due process with a formal hearing.

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