Society for the Teaching of Psychology
Division 2 of the American Psychological Association

E-xcellence in Teaching Essay: That’s What She Said: Educating Students about Plagiarism

15 Aug 2017 11:31 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

That’s What She Said: Educating Students about Plagiarism


Elizabeth A. Sheehan

Georgia State University


Dealing with plagiarism is one of the more unpleasant aspects of our job as instructors. There is the sinking feeling you get when you suspect plagiarism, the moment that your Google search returns the exact passage from your student’s paper, the uncomfortable conversation with the student, the documentation to your department, and the potential hearing with the honor board. I would venture to say most of us have either dealt with these ourselves or at least supported another colleague through the process. These cases range from the cringe-worthy (e.g. copying directly from an instructor’s own published article, turning in a paper written by another student in a past semester) to the more minor infringements (e.g. unintentionally omitting quotation marks around a direct quote).

At the teaching conferences I attended over the last few years, there seems to have been more emphasis on learning outcome assessment and reliance on the APA’s learning outcomes for undergraduates with a psychology major (APA, 2007). One of those outcomes is for students to “demonstrate effective writing skills in various formats” (p. 18). There also never seems to be a lack of presentations on how to incorporate writing assignments into your courses. Increasing writing assignments in your courses might mean increasing the chance you will encounter plagiarism; however, we might be able to prevent some of these cases with a greater focus on educating our students about plagiarism. Moreover, educating our students about plagiarism helps us address other APA learning outcomes about ethical behavior.



To decrease plagiarism, a good place to start would be to try to understand WHY students plagiarize. At the last meeting of the National Institute on the Teaching of Psychology, I led a Participant Idea Exchange (PIE) on educating students about plagiarism (Sheehan, 2013). These PIE sessions are roundtable discussions on a topic. My group generated the following list of potential reasons students plagiarize:

  • ·         difficulty comprehending a reading;
  • ·         rushing through an assignment;
  • ·         convenience;
  • ·         cultural misunderstanding;
  • ·         poor understanding of the definition of plagiarism;
  • ·         not knowing how to integrate/synthesize/paraphrase;
  • ·         plagiarism is all around us in society; and
  • ·         not confident in their ability to write.

You may be familiar with some of these, especially time constraints, difficulty with reading comprehension, and the inability to paraphrase. The idea of culture stood out to me from the PIE discussion. First, some cases of plagiarism could be due to cultural misunderstanding. Stowers and Hummel (2011) provide some examples of how students from an Eastern culture may view the use of another’s work. For instance, they assert some Asian students may see it as a sign of disrespect to paraphrase or change someone else’s words.

A second example of culture is how plagiarism takes place all around us in society. We regularly use the functions of copy and paste on our computers in many different settings. People re-post others’ writing on their Facebook pages, re-blog someone else’s blog entry, forward youTube videos to friends, etc. Usually these events can be accomplished through one or two clicks. While these aren’t examples of academic writing, they do provide precedents that we have to overcome in our courses.



We had a discussion about plagiarism in my department, and our faculty reported a number of problems in pursuing cases of plagiarism, including some cases not being reported at all, faculty handling cases on their own, cases meeting our discipline’s definition of plagiarism being overturned by the college, not knowing the university reporting procedures, etc. It was clear we needed consistency and clarity. We also decided we wanted to focus less on policing, and to favor educating our students to prevent future plagiarism. You could probably guess that this led to a subcommittee (and the idea for my PIE). Our subcommittee created a standard definition of plagiarism that went into all syllabi, a writing workshop on plagiarism, a quiz, a contract for students, a flow chart of how to report plagiarism, and class activities to teach the identification of proper paraphrasing and citations. These materials (Lamoreaux, Darnell, Sheehan, & Tusher, 2012) are publicly available on the Society for Teaching of Psychology website (

            At my PIE, I asked other faculty how they educated their students about plagiarism. Below are the techniques they listed:

  • a quiz on plagiarism;
  • a quiz on student handbook;
  • list policies in the syllabus on paraphrasing and/or a link to school policy;
  • discussion on the first day of class;
  • starting early in introductory classes or freshman year before students are allowed to register for classes; and
  • using technology (e.g. Turnitin or SafeAssign).

One quiz recommended by multiple instructors is available through Indiana University, and can be found at At this site, students can complete a tutorial on plagiarism, see examples, take a quiz, and get a certificate of completion. My department uses this site as a part of our plagiarism training for students.

            A lot of us put policies on plagiarism in the syllabus and reference it on the first day of class; however, this alone is not enough. First, we can’t always rely on students to read it or to follow a link to the university policy. Second, we can’t assume they will understand the policy. Gullifer and Tyson (2010) present data demonstrating students have a great deal of confusion over what constitutes plagiarism despite online access to a policy. Students in their study also reported wanting education on plagiarism. These findings are also corroborated by data from Holt (2012).

            Holt provided basic information about plagiarism to a control group of students and training in paraphrasing to an intervention group. The control group received a definition of plagiarism in the syllabus, a link to the university policy, one example of proper paraphrasing, and a 10-minute demonstration of improper phrasing in class. The intervention group received training in paraphrasing and proper citations, along with assignments in class. As you might expect, the group with additional training was able to identify plagiarism more accurately than those without training. This study identified reasons for unintentional plagiarism as well. For example, students thought that quotations were not needed or materials didn’t have to be paraphrased if a citation was provided.

            Something as simple as a weekly paraphrasing activity can help. For 6 weeks of the semester, Barry (2006) gave students a paragraph from a famous developmental theorist. Students had to paraphrase the passage and provide a proper citation. After completing the activity, students’ definitions of plagiarism were more complex than those offered at the onset of the study. Not only did they define plagiarism as “taking someone else’s idea”, they added “not giving credit” to their definition. This isn’t necessarily evidence that this activity would reduce the number plagiarism cases, but it is evidence of students gaining a better understanding of plagiarism.

            You could also incorporate plagiarism as a theme in your course. Estow, Lawrence, and Adams (2011) designed a research methods class where the assignments and projects in the class related to the topic of plagiarism. For example, their students designed a survey about plagiarism, collected data, and wrote a research report on their findings in one set of assignments. The researchers compared the progress of this class to one with the same assignments but a different theme. The students in the plagiarism-themed course were able to better identify plagiarism and generate more strategies for avoiding plagiarism.

Plagiarism is scary, for both professionals and students. The consequences can be steep. It has resulted in failed assignments, expulsion from school, revoked degrees, and even ended careers. Students often tell me how terrified they are of unintentional plagiarism; Gullifer and Tyson’s participants also expressed fear of unintentional plagiarism and the consequences of plagiarism. Implementing some of these fairly simple ideas in our courses will enhance our students understanding of plagiarism. A better-informed student should be less fearful, more confident in their ability to write, and less likely to plagiarize.




American Psychological Association. (2007). APA guidelines for the undergraduate psychology major. Retrieved from

Barry, E. (2006). Can paraphrasing practice help students define plagiarism? College Student Journal, 40(2), 377-384.

Estow, S., Lawrence, E. K., & Adams, K.A. (2011). Practice makes perfect: Improving students’ skills in understanding and avoiding plagiarism with a themed methods course. Teaching of Psychology, 38(4), 255-258.

Gullifer, J., & Tyson, G.A. (2010). Exploring university students’ perceptions of plagiarism: A focus group study. Studies in Higher Education, 35(4), 463-481.

Holt, E. (2012). Education improves plagiarism detection by biology undergraduates. BioScience, 62(6), 585-592.

Lamoreaux, M., Darnell, K., Sheehan, E., & Tusher, C. (2012). Educating students about plagiarism. Retrieved from  Office of Teaching Resources in Psychology for Society for the Teaching of Psychology website: Students about Plagiarism.pdf

Sheehan, E. A. (2013, January). Kick plagiarism to the curb: How to educate students before they head down that road. Participant Idea Exchange conducted at the National Institute on the Teaching of Psychology, St. Pete Beach, Fl.

Stowers, R. H., & Hummel, J. Y. (2011) The use of technology to combat plagiarism in business communication classes. Business Communication Quarterly, 74(2), 164-169.



Elizabeth Sheehan is a Lecturer at Georgia State University. She earned her PhD in Psychology from Emory University in Cognition and Development. She currently teaches Intro Psychology, an integrated version of Research Methods and Statistics, and Forensic Psychology. She has presented her work on designing study abroad programs, teaching with technology, and incorporating writing assignments into courses at teaching conferences, such as the Southeastern Conference on Teaching of Psychology and the Developmental Science Teaching Institute for the Society for Research in Child Development.


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