The Paraphrase Daze

By Kyle Harley

In the not-so-distant past, I encountered an overly-downtrodden student that, among other issues, came to a Live Tutoring session with his tail between his legs regarding a failed assignment. Few markings were found on the page; in fact, just two stood out aside from the daunting “0” that read: “Citation?” and finally “Plagiarism.” The student expressed concern over plagiarism, especially in this class, most notably due to not understanding how he plagiarized in a writing class where he learned about plagiarism. On a surface level, the paper looked great: the sources were all accounted for, the reference page was impeccable, and I did not even have to explain how to cure a disembodied quote.—In sum, this student was a dream to work with. Unfortunately, and much to the student’s surprise, I found that some of the information, though differing drastically from the original source, was, in fact, paraphrased. Taking the issue one step further, I found myself stunned that this student did not even know what the word “paraphrase” meant .  .  .  And so the plot thickens.

Fast forward a few weeks ahead and I am again faced with another student—same issues, minimal markings, zero credit, and morale down the tubes. Instead of going through the motions as I did with the last paper, I simply asked the student to define paraphrasing for me. My question turned into his question with the simple response: “What’s that?” I then realized, just before giving a workshop presentation on paraphrasing, that a large percentage of plagiarism may well come down to the lack of paraphrasing practice.

Simply put, and to the chagrin of students around the university, paraphrasing does not wholly revolve around placing proper citation at the end of each paragraph where students rephrased information from their selected source. While direct quotation remains rather obvious to most students, the act of rephrasing, reconstructing, and meanwhile maintaining the original author’s intent appears to be a mystery to many students.  Are students missing teaching moments in classes or is there a presupposed expectation riding on students to already understand concepts they never knew existed?

To further keep with the motif of Plagiarism Month, I find myself wondering where we stand as educators when we place these failing grades on papers. While some plagiarism cases are clearly plagiarism, others may demand a closer look at the writing and the writer.  Research writing is a learned skill.  Students must be given the opportunities to practice these skills in order to master them.  Are we giving students a chance to practice and master these skills without the fear of failing? If not, how can we to hold students accountable?  While it may seem difficult to teach writing in a course that is focusing on other content, learning to effectively write within a discipline is going to best be taught by professors in that discipline.  Sometimes, simply reviewing citations skills and expectations before a graded assignment can help. Try using these two videos for review:

As students grapple with both new content knowledge and new forms of writing, mistakes will be made.  Providing students with resources and reviews will help students succeed and avoid plagiarism.

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