February 20, 2014

If not handled well, accusations of cheating or plagiarism, could have a huge impact on a student’s academic journey.  We welcome Dr. Michelle Warn, Program Chair, Masters in Teaching and Learning with Technology at Ashford University, to share with us how she and her colleagues make academic integrity a teachable moment for students…and perhaps for some faculty as well.

One afternoon a distressed student called asking for advice. She was despondent and was considering dropping out. She said she had been accused of cheating and lying. As the story unfolded, she had been informed by her professor that she had plagiarized and was receiving a zero on her assignment.  Further, the professor reexamined several earlier assignments and reassigned zeros to those as well. This student was essentially failing the course.

Extensive email correspondence between the student and instructor consisted of Turnitin reports, resources and tutorials pushed out to the student by the instructor.  The student spent hours reading through the materials but couldn’t understand what was wrong in her own writing.

In addressing plagiarism, this tale speaks to several factors common to the online university setting, including reduced opportunities for students and faculty to develop collegial relationships and reliance on asynchronous instructional strategies that may or may not address the need when coaching writing skills. Further, the assumption by many faculty that students in college should “know this” (meaning how to properly cite and use APA) is often unrealistic when applied to the nontraditional online learner.  Many online students come from humble educational backgrounds, with below average writing skills. Simply asking them to sign policies of academic honesty does not address the truth of how well they understand or are able to meet the expectations implied by those policies.

Academic Integrity as a Gradual Internal Process
Kristen Saucerman_webIf we re-envision academic integrity as a gradual process of acculturation and growth, we see the student in a new light. Internalization of academic ethos is the result of the steady and transformative experience that is higher education. As part of that transformative process, students begin to find their own academic voice among the throng of authors and scholars they are presented with in the classroom. Confidence in one’s own voice is typically nurtured in a community of support and collegiality, and is hindered in an environment of sanctions and compliance.

As the taskforce continued its evaluation of the organizational response to plagiarism, there became an increasing sense that the current model of compliance was not contributing to a  culture of academic esprit de corps so integral to the vision of the university.  The taskforce sought  opportunities for a fundamental shift by identifying four key areas: finding the student voice, instructor as coach, a virtual environment for the academic community, and a process for consistent and appropriate intervention.

Finding the Student Voice – Pedagogy before Policy
Moore Howard (1995) suggests that pedagogy be considered as a first line of response to plagiarism rather than sanctions. She and others use the example of patchwriting, where portions of readings are copied and pasted together into a single document. Patchwriting can be a technique used by writers when synthesizing new concepts and terminology. She states, “Most patchwriters, far from being immoral members of the academic community, are instead people working their way through cognitive difficulties” (p.801).

Based on the description of types of plagiarism developed by Moore Howard, the University of Michigan created a table breaking out intentional versus unintentional plagiarism. Although not always so, I would venture to suggest that the category “unintentional” does open the door for speculation and giving the student the benefit of the doubt.

Moore Howard’s Categories of Plagiarism








Failure to Cite

Failure to Quote

Intentional use of other authors’ material as one’s own. Often unintentional plagiarism. Uses direct works and ideas from a variety of authors and sources throughout without use of quotes, and often without citation. Paraphrasing other’s works without proper citation. May include some reference to the source but formatting is improper. Use of exact language from another author without properly quoting and citing the work. May include some reference to the source but formatting is improper.

Table adapted by the University of Michigan (2013), from work by Moore Howard.

In our university, we estimate that many students cited are being processed for unintentional plagiarism. The university definition of plagiarism is as follows: “Plagiarism occurs when a student deliberately uses the ideas, language, or another writer’s original material (that is not common knowledge) without acknowledging the source” (Ashford University, 2014, para. 7).

I believe the words “deliberately” or “intentionally” are too often ignored by instructors and policy offices when addressing plagiarism. But how do we know if a student is unintentionally plagiarizing? Gerald Nelms, Academic Writing Director of Wright State University suggests that “Not all plagiarism, even intentional plagiarism, rises to the level of academic dishonesty” (Turnintin Webcast, 2014). In his informative webinar, Nelms recommends that the student should first be queried prior to any further action. He cautions that assumptions of cheating can lead to dire consequences for some college students who may be impressionable and vulnerable. Nelms goes on to suggest that once a student is interviewed, opportunities to coach should be considered first.  (Click to view the Gerald Nelms Turnitin Webcast).

State of the Art Coaching Technology
Ashford University believes in the exponential power of instructional technology. Turnitin has been implemented within every course for quite some time. Currently the College of Education is experimenting with Pearson Writer to develop and improve student writing skills. It is conducting research in the classroom to see what types of writers use the tool and how it is used. From there we can identify strategies for taking an active approach to building college writing skills in those who need them most.

Technology also serves as first line of support when assessing type and degree of plagiarism. It can provide targeted and adaptive interventions along with guided instruction. Short multimedia tutorials and interactive resources can also provide specific means for addressing a variety of writing needs. It is critical that the creation of these tutorials should include the end user (student or instructor) early in the design and development process, to better ensure responsive and appropriate interventions.

Instructor as Coach
Strong writing skills help to counter plagiarism. The taskforce is recommending that the instructor assume a greater role in coaching writing skills.  Because this philosophy could entail more time on the part of the instructor, faculty development along with the provision of a suite of targeted tools, technology, and resources would be provided. As a second line of support, our writing center is ramping up with staff who will work one on one with students asynchronously as well as synchronously via office hours and phone calls.

Targeted Response Based on Plagiarism Type and Degree
Lang (2013) suggests that “it makes much more sense to think about our responses to cheating in the way that we respond to crimes in our legal system. We take the time to consider the nature and degree of the offense, and we give out an appropriate punishment” (p. 209).

The taskforce sees a critical need for consistent and directed responses based on data. Using the model developed by Howard Moore (1995), we feel that different types of plagiarism should warrant different responses. Every time plagiarism is detected, an incident report would be filed after which instructors would be guided to specific tools and resources based on which of the four types of plagiarism was presented by the student – fraud, patchwriting, failure to cite, and failure to quote. Our student database would be modified to include details on types of writing interventions provided at each incident of plagiarism. Such historical data would allow better decision making when plagiarism recurs. We believe that through tracking of writing interventions across time, along with consistent procedures and targeted instruction, students have a much greater opportunity for growth across time.

Virtual Community Space
The most powerful opportunity to infuse academic ethos within the university is to create a virtual community for both students and faculty. A virtual academic community can offer relationship building, collaborative writing and research, and scholarly discussion. In such an environment, academic writing would be prevalent, serving to model critical thinking and the process of synthesizing others’ work to formulate one’s own original ideas and concepts.

In addition to building writing skills, a virtual community offers opportunities to observe ethics in practice, and could eventually provide a system of equilibrium for weighing and responding to ethical dilemmas. Those who may stray toward opportunities for cheating would be steered toward more principled decisions through peer watchdogs and faculty presence. Gallant (2011) suggests that once academic integrity becomes institutionalized, students could take their exams outside without faculty concern for cheating.

Where Are We Now?
The Originality Matters Taskforce has completed its initial analysis. Currently we are sharing findings with university administrators. Next steps are being identified, with the expectation that sub-committees will be formed of individuals and students university wide to effectively address each of the key areas described above. With the increasing expansion of higher education into the international and military arenas, it is critical that universities identify online strategies to address plagiarism and provide targeted approaches to ensure student growth and development rather than failure and embarrassment.

The approaches described here are not designed to relax academic standards and principles, but rather to integrate them at a deeper, more holistic level university wide. Through conceptualizing and implementing respectful and supportive systems and procedures, faculty, students, and universities have the opportunity to encourage and institutionalize academic integrity in the online higher education arena.

Questions to Colleagues:
One of the most difficult challenges the taskforce expects is convincing faculty to take on the “Teachable Moment.” In the narrative we have identified some ideas for how we would make this less onerous for faculty. We would appreciate any feedback or recommendations for encouraging faculty to be motivated in this role as first line writing support. We also welcome any other suggestions that may be viable toward our effort of institutionalizing academic integrity in an online university.

Warn, Michelle_web

Michelle Warn, Ph.D.
Program Chair, Masters in Teaching and Learning with Technology
Ashford University


Gallant, T.B. (2011). Building a culture of academic integrity. Magna Publications, Inc. Retrieved November, 2013:

Howard, Rebecca Moore. Plagiarisms, authorships, and the academic death penalty. College English 57.7 (November 1995): 708-36.

Lang, J.M. (2013). Cheating lessons: Learning from academic dishonesty. Harvard University Press, Harvard, MA.

University of Michigan (2013). Types of plagiarism: Plagiarism activities  Retrieved November 2013: http://www.lib.umich.edu/shapiro-undergraduate-lib

2 replies on “Originality Matters: Making Academic Integrity a Teachable Moment”

Thank you, Michelle!
This is a great post. I’ve been thinking a great deal about these issues lately. I gave a keynote presentation recently on the state of online learning in California. I had a whole presentation prepared about innovation and the like, but for some reason I started with a question of the audience (mainly teachers). I asked them how many had policies covering cheating and plagiarism on their course syllabi. Almost all raised their hands. I then asked how many had definitions as part of those policies and many hands went down. My last question was how many had a discussion forum set up that gave students insight into why integrity was important to them, both to the student and the teacher. Not a single hand remained in the air.

I think it is critically important that the teacher have that conversation with the student about not only defining what the problem is, but letting students know why it should be important to them and IS important to the teacher that they be original in their work and their lives.

In the online teacher certification program courses that I teach, I recommend that teachers start their courses with a discussion forum about integrity that is based on the type of information you present here and the importance of being original.

The consequences of degrees that don’t matter are huge for all of us, but the consequences for the student of being unprepared for life and work, is much more important to address.

This is a great post and I will share it with my colleagues. Again, Thank YOU!

Pat James
Mt. San Jacinto College
WCET Fellow

Pat, I applaud your deepening of the conversation.

Assumptions that students know this starts the plagiarism conversation out on the wrong foot. As the training guru, Robert Mager taught, even if they wanna do it, could they do it if their lives depended on it?

Once we have that answer, we can work from there.

Mager, R. F., & Pipe, P. (1997). Analyzing performance problems or you really oughta wanna (3rd ed.). Belmont, CA: Lake Publishers.

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