So... why and when do students plagiarize? This is where I will talk a bit more personally. First of all, each case is unique and should be treated as such. As I discuss in another blog post, it's best to talk to students who plagiarize one-on-one.
Why do they plagiarize?
I have been able to clump all my cases of plagiarism into one of three reasons: 1) they're stressed and busy; 2) they're inexperienced and/or 3) they're not at course level. Oftentimes, students have a combination of these factors.
1. Stressed and Busy
Students who plagiarize always have a story. They are taking far too many classes, working a full time job, have to provide for a large family... The list goes on! These aren't justified excuses for them to plagiarize, of course, but I always listen to their story. It's important to remember that they're human beings with other ambitions and priorities, just like anyone else.
Not everyone is crazy about gerunds and past participles like I am. Students want to get this essay over and done with as quickly as possible so they can do the things they want (or need) to do. The bottom line is, these students believe that plagiarizing will save them time, will make it easier and faster, which, we all know, is not necessarily true. I wish students really understood the time and energy it takes to plagiarize effectively. You know, in a way that would make it impossible for teachers to detect. It's so much faster to write the damn paper!
When it comes to working with ESL, which is what I do, the way I approach and discuss plagiarism must be handled with care and caution. The idea of "stealing words" is often a brand-new idea to them. In China, for example, it's better to, in general, "blend with the crowd," so the less you use your own words, the better. This causes a lot of Chinese to naturally use "others" words, and they never think to give credit or reference where they got their ideas.
If you think about it, the concept of "owning" words is strange, so you can't blame them for not understanding the need to cite where they got information. Talking with these students often involves a teaching lesson on having original thought and being okay with saying things less-perfect than someone else. In fact, this gives them a distinct voice that teachers treasure. I'd much rather hear an original thought peppered with grammatical errors than an overly sophisticated sentence I know my student didn't write.
Inexperienced can also include things like culture-shock, or being new to college life. My conversations often include a discussion on time management and expectations of college professors. I provide resources and encourage them to talk to counselors and tutors who can help them adjust to their new way of life.
3. Not at course level
In order to take the classes I teach, which are advanced writing courses for ESL, they must take a placement test or pass the class just below with a C or higher. Our placement test isn't perfect. (Whose is?) Students are misplaced in my class all the time. I often give a little diagnostic near the beginning of the semester. I usually know, then, who my weaker students are, and I give them additional one-on-one help whenever possible. Every semester, though, one of these "weaker" students plagiarizes.
Their motivation is mostly out of embarrassment or fear. They usually didn't understand the assignment instructions. Even if they do understand, they don't have the skills necessary to complete the task, and they are simply embarrassed to ask for help. They fear that if they ask for help or let-on that they're English skills are lower than the other students, they'll be sent to another class or have to start over on the ESL ladder, which they can't afford or don't want to do because they'll bring shame to their family.
I try to be extra patient with these students because their self esteem is usually pretty low. When I meet with them to talk about their plagiarized papers, most are ashamed and confess before I even get the chance to ask them why they think they earned a low score on their paper. Some, however, are shocked that they're not allowed to copy and paste (or "borrow" as they like to call it) whatever they want because it's what they've always done. It's how they got into my class in the first place.
When do they plagiarize?
There are probably a plethora of other reasons why students plagiarize, but I've found that they always boil down to one or more of the three listed above. Now, to answer when they plagiarize, it's usually during the early stages of writing, during the brainstorming or prewriting stages.
As research has shown (you can get a full list of my references on the last slide of my powerpoint), teachers need to intervene throughout the writing process to ensure students understand what's expected of them and they aren't trying to "cut-corners" via plagiarism.
Writing takes time, and I try my best to stress this to my students, though they never fully believe me until they've completed their first essay. I think with this day and age, it's especially tempting to just google something when you're feeling stuck. I tell my students that brainstorming involves the brain. It doesn't involve a translator or google.
Plagairism, as mentioned, can be a touchy topic, but it's something that needs to be addressed in more than just a syllabus or policy waved at students the first day of class. My goal as an ESL writing instructor is to help my students feel confident with the writing process and English essay so they can write independent and unique thoughts. "It's a lot of work," I tell them, "but nothing is more satisfying!"