Why Students Plagiarize and What to Do When You Catch It


Academic dishonesty is an unfortunate reality for many teachers. To learn how to best handle such problems, it's important to understand why students feel compelled to cheat in the first place.

Catching Plagiarism

Thanks to recent advances with online learning, it's easier than ever to detect plagiarism. Sites like turnitin.com and Grammarly make it a simple task for teachers to cross-reference their students' work and catch any attempts at academic dishonesty.

Nevertheless, students continue to copy assignments in the hopes of avoiding work and improving their grades. According to a recent survey of 24,000 high school students, 58 percent (or 13,920) of those surveyed admitted to committing plagiarism at some point. No matter how advanced countermeasures become, some students will always try to beat the system. It's more or less inevitable that you will come across a paper or assignment that goes beyond a simple failure to cite sources and constitutes plagiarism.


Such incidents can be major sources of stress and indecision. Should you crack down and punish students harshly? Or should you be lenient and offer a second chance?

Why do Students Cheat?

First and foremost, it's important to recognize the fact that plagiarism is not always malicious or mischievous. While you should never be lenient with students who are guilty of stealing intellectual property, you should make an effort to understand why one of your students would attempt to cheat.

Students of all ages struggle with academic confidence. Younger students in elementary school can become anxious if they feel they are not as intelligent as their classmates, and high school students have college applications and their GPA to worry about. For the nervous student in a bind, plagiarism can seem like the only way to ensure a good grade.

If you catch a student copying his or her work and sense that their actions were inspired by fear or anxiety, you can turn the moment into a teaching opportunity. Explain that you understand their desire to get good grades, but stress the fact that learning information is more important than simply earning a higher GPA. Copying an assignment may help in the short-term, but a failure to learn lesson material is sure to be a problem on final exams and in later grades.


While these students may need support, they are still guilty of committing academic fraud. Be careful not to be too lenient, or you may accidentally endorse the idea that future transgressions will not be punished severely.

That being said, not all plagiarizers are well-meaning students coping with academic stress. In many cases, students who are entirely capable of completing an assignment will resort to dishonesty simply because they do not want to do the work. Maybe they procrastinated and ran out of time to complete the assignment, or maybe they just couldn't be bothered to put in the work. Either way, these offenders must be handled properly when their actions are discovered.

Whereas your more troubled students may be in need of a carrot, this type of cheater needs the stick. Refusing to do work that falls within their abilities is an insult to both the assignment and yourself, and you need to make it clear that such laziness and disrespect will not be tolerated in your classroom.

Handling Plagiarism

Once you've identified an incident involving academic fraud and determined your student's motivation, it's time to handle the situation.

Punishment for plagiarism varies from one institution to the next. Many schools, especially colleges and universities, feature academic honor codes that provide guidance for such offenses. Most honor codes include specific rules for punishing plagiarism and can include a failing grade for the assignment, suspension, or community service. For public schools, plagiarism policies are often set at the district level and punishments can include a parent-teacher conference, a failing grade for the assignment, and loss of extracurricular activity privileges. If your school has such a policy, you may not have a choice when it comes to handling the situation.

in trouble

If your school does not have an honor code or policy for responding to allegations of cheating, the final decision falls to you. Providing specific advice is a little tricky, as each situation is unique, but if you trust your instincts and use your better judgment, you will be fine. If you sense that the cheating stemmed from a fear of failure, you may want to go easy on your students and offer them a second chance at the assignment. If you sense that your students are capable of completing the assignment and merely wanted to avoid putting in the work, you may want to issue a harsh punishment to prevent future incidents and inspire them to try harder.

Regardless of how you react, you'll need to be decisive. Plagiarism is one of the more egregious academic offenses and your response needs to be just as serious. Too much leniency may encourage other students to try to cheat, but being unnecessarily harsh may generate resentment and drive away students who need support.

By Bill Sands
April 2017
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