On Plagiarism ~ When in Doubt ~


Keep in mind the big picture -- to create "caring, creative, self-reliant and contributing members of a knowledge-based and prosperous society," (Alberta Education) we must actively foster intellectual honesty among our students.

bullet Encourage students to use resources appropriately.
bullet Challenge those students who have used resources inappropriately to reflect upon and learn from their behavior.
  1. Inform
  2. Detect
  3. Respond
  4. Contract
1. Inform - Let students know up front that plagiarism or any other form of cheating is unacceptable.
Provide all students with a list of consequences that will be enacted if a student is suspected of passing off someone else's work as his/her own, and follow up on these consequences if the occasion arises.  For example...
  • It is the student's responsibility to maintain copies of all rough work, as the teacher may call upon the student to show work in progress as support for the student's independent work.  This may include two versions of works-in-progess, saved at intervals to show the evolving document, if the student is writing using a word processor.  
  • The teacher discusses the matter with the student.  
  • A "zero" will be recorded as the student's mark on that assignment.  
  • Parents will be informed.  
  • The offense will be documented in the student's cumulative file.
Inform students that the alternative to plagiarism is responsible resource use and that you will help them learn about responsible resource use.  For example...
  • you will provide students with handouts:  What is Plagiarism? and Other People's Ideas.


  • you will let students explore the validity of some common assumptions people have about plagiarism:  Responsible Resource Use.


  • you will provide students with support learning about note-taking through these  Note-Taking 'NetSteps page and Note-Taking and Paraphrasing 'NetSplore page resources.


  • you will expect students to take ownership of their part in shaping their directions in writing improvement by together identifying specific goals that they will work toward achieving in their writing.  Work submitted should provide specific evidence for you that the student is making the effort to achieve these goals.


When responding to plagiarism, we should enact the consequences we have predefined for them, but we should also work constructively with that student to assist him/her in future situations when s/he might be tempted to plagiarize again.


2. Detect - Ask questions such as the following:
  • To what extent is the structure of this composition shaped within the scope of the topic provided?  Does it "fit"?


  • To what extent is the structure of this composition consistent with the way you have taught essay writing? (introduction, thesis statement, etc.)


  • To what extent is the language and style of this essay consistent with the language and style of writing demonstrated by this student in other compositions?
    • Is the diction too sophisticated? too bland?  Are there virtually no spelling or punctuation errors?  
    • Is the style too polished?  Are there turns of phrase or uses of spelling that are not consistent with what you'd expect from this student?  Are grammatical errors consistent with what you'd expect from this student?
    • Are there references to current events that are no longer current, or to people or other sources that are unexpected and/or not cited?
    • Are there prolonged but digressive (off-topic) sections?

    This is where goal-setting sheets and writing samples are useful to have on hand.  For the student's sake, this is also why it is important for the student to keep copies of drafts of work, as tracing the writing process can help them confirm their original work's authenticity if called upon to do so.


  • Has the student a history of plagiarizing?  Check their cumulative file and chat with colleagues.


3. Respond - Meet with the student to discuss his or her composition and next steps, as outlined in your plagiarism policy, or, if plagiarism is not verified, as you and the student arrange regarding how to support the writing of his or her next composition.  
Practice your sleuthing skills:  Try this teacher activity - Inside Plagiarism with the Plagiarism Sleuth

Before meeting with the student, do some sleuthing.

  • Identify phrases in the essay that appear particular to that essay.


  • Use these phrases to conduct an Internet search, by entering them into the search box at 2Learn.ca's Plagiarism Sleuth as phrases (in quotation marks). e.g. "digressive (off-topic) sections".  If one search engine gives no or unsatisfactory results, try another--in this case, the more search engines that don't provide you with what you are looking for, the better.


  • If you receive no search results leading you to the composition you're looking for, be aware that the paper may have been found on a site that maintains works in a database.  You might want to visit some of these sites to check.


  • Check popular print sources that may have provided material...such as Coles Notes, Monarch Notes, Barron's Notes, etc.


  • If you find that you have located the source of your student's plagiarized paper, you will be able to confront your student and follow through with the consequences provided.


  • If you cannot locate the source of your student's plagiarized paper, but are concerned that it is not his or her own work, it is extremely worthwhile still to meet with the student to express your concern, to ask the question directly, and to request that the student provide you with his or her rough work and other draft material so that you can become more aware of the process the student went through in writing the composition.  In most cases, students will admit to you when they have plagiarized all or even part of an assignment.  Follow through with the consequences as outlined to the students ahead of time, with the understanding that in the future the student's work in progress may be monitored more closely.


  • If the student does not admit to plagiarism and you have no way of substantiating your claim, you might want to monitor the student's work in progress more closely.  If you are working within a department or school which has a defined plagiarism policy, you may follow through with penalties as outlined in that policy (see Plagiarism Policies - Samples from post-secondary institutions).  Ensure that future work by that student is monitored closely as they come to acquaint themselves with more acceptable writing processes.


Sign a contract with the student to ensure s/he understands that s/he is in a probationary position as s/he demonstrates that s/he is now working within the framework you have outlined for him or her.
Now you can provide the student with resources to help him/her avoid plagiarism in the future.  You might wish to assign the student the following activities, requesting that s/he provide you with written summaries of what s/he has learned through each each activity:
  • Responsible Resource Use - This online activity dispels common myths and assumptions about plagiarism, putting the facts into perspective within the context of responsible resource use.


  • Note-Taking and Paraphrasing 'NetSplore Activity Page - This activity points to numerous web resources to support students learning note-taking and paraphrasing skills, using 2Learn.ca's WebTracks / 'NetLog Sheets to maintain organized records of sites visited.


  • A Writer's Research Notes- For use with web and printed resources--record key ideas from secondary sources, draw inferences from them, and then consider how they will fit into the larger framework of your own composition.


  • A Writer's Ideas and Support Planning Sheet - For use with web and printed resources--make your claim, and then substantiate and develop it through identifying and analyzing three supporting details (a good "next step" from the Research Notes Sheet, above).


  • A Writer's Working Outline - Develop a working outline.


  • Accountability Form - This checklist challenges the student to sign his/her name to a document that details that s/he is aware of and has followed correct processes in researching and writing his/her composition.  It is most constructively used when filled out at appropriate intervals throughout the writing process.