‘What did I do wrong?’ Supporting independent learning practices to avoid plagiarism

Helen Hathaway, Library; Clare Nukui, International Foundation Programme; Dr Kim Shahabudin, Study Advice; Dr Elisabeth Wilding, International Study and Language Institute
h.m.hathaway@reading.ac.uk
Year of activity: 2012-13

Overview

8905The development of an Academic Integrity Toolkit for academic tutors to draw on, which collated evaluated teaching and support resources for supporting the development of independent learning practices necessary to avoid plagiarism, and offered guidance for adapting and using them in subject teaching.

Objectives

  • To conduct research into current practices and needs for supporting the development of independent learning practices.
  • To develop a toolkit to provide academic tutors with resources for developing independent learning practices necessary to avoid plagiarism.

Context

The fundamental academic principles of independent critical thinking, supported by appropriate and properly cited evidence from evaluated sources, lie at the heart of Higher Education in the UK. A proper understanding of these principles and the independent learning practices needed to achieve them is especially crucial in avoiding unintentional plagiarism. Despite the availability of a range of advice, both internal and external to the University of Reading, students continually stated that they did not know when and how to use citations, or how to avoid unintentional plagiarism. Beyond simply learning the mechanisms of setting out a bibliography or when to include a citation, students need to understand associated practices, such as where to find appropriate sources of information in their subject, how to keep proper records, and how, when, and why to use references in their academic work.

Implementation

Data was collected from a variety of sources on current practices and perceived needs to inform the production of the toolkit. Team members were able to draw upon their professional communities for information about practices at other institutions, and on contacts at the University of Reading for practices and perceived needs. A research officer was appointed, and was tasked with collecting further data from academic tutors and students in a number of selected departments at the University, using semi-structured interviews and focus groups. These were set against the wider context of general observations gathered through separate online surveys offered to all staff and students. Existing pedagogical research into student referencing practices was also considered.

The research questions during this stage of inquiry were:

  • What are the main (perceived and actual) difficulties that students have with understanding referencing and avoiding plagiarism?
  • How do associated independent learning practices impact on this?
  • Why do students fail to engage with current teaching and guidance on referencing?
  • What teaching resources are currently available (at the University of Reading and elsewhere), and how might they be made more effective for teaching staff and students across the University?

The research was used to inform the content and production of the Academic Integrity Toolkit materials. These were generated by team members using a template, before going through an iterative process of revision and evaluation by other team members.  They were then edited by a single team member to ensure consistency.

Impact

The Academic Integrity Toolkit was successfully launched in June 2013 at an event attended by over 50 members of staff, with a visiting speaker presenting on the topic of student referencing practices. The Toolkit comprises:

    • 17 handouts giving guidance on key learning practices;
    • 8 exercise sheets with answers;
    • 13 sets of PowerPoint slides for use in teaching;
    • Links to screencasts produced by members of the Study Advice team;
    • An annotated list of useful websites.

The Academic Integrity Toolkit has been made available through the Blackboard Virtual Learning Environment, onto which staff can self-enrol. A paper version contained in a card folder was created for attendees at the launch event and to disseminate to key members of the teaching and learning community at the University of Reading.

The Toolkit has been a successful and well-used teaching resource. Departments and Schools have requested that their entire teaching staff get enrolled to the Toolkit through Blackboard. It was favourably received by the University Board of Teaching and Learning and the Sub-Committee for the Development and Enhancement of Teaching and Learning, with suggestions being made for its further development through a student-facing version in digital format.

There has been interest, both at the University of Reading and beyond, in the results of the project. Presentations were given at the Librarians’ Information Literacy Annual Conference, the Association for Learning Development in Higher Education conference, and the Association of Librarians and Information Professionals in the Social Sciences summer conference.

Reflections

While the project was successful, it was not without its difficulties. Difficulty was experienced with data collection at the University, particularly in recruiting students for focus groups, which may have been an unavoidable consequence of the necessary timing. Despite this difficulty, however, the data obtained by the focus groups that did run was supplemented by a good response to the wider University-wide survey, and by reported data from academic and support staff through their direct contact with students.

Another difficulty faced was the existing busy workloads of the team members. This was overcome by scheduling brief face-to-face lunchtime meetings once a month, and by setting up a wiki (using PBworks) to allow collation of data and joint working on documents, in addition to regular email communications. Despite the potential for difficulties caused by the project being a collaboration between the Library, International Study and Language Institute and Study Advice, the combined expertise and experience of team members proved particularly valuable, especially as it allowed the project to make use of team members’ involvement with various professional networks, and it was found to be very advantageous to have the different perspectives that were able to be provided by having a diverse team.

Follow up

It is planned that the resources developed through the project be adapted to be an Open Educational Resource, to allow them to be more widely shared for use in UK and global Higher Education teaching.

Guides to citing and avoiding plagiarism available on the Library website have been informed by the results of the project and updated appropriately.

It is hoped that more extensive resources will be developed, and that these will be mediated by members of staff.

As a result of the experience of collaborative working between different areas of the University, Helen Hathaway and Kim Shahabudin have had a chapter entitled ‘Terms of reference: working together to develop student citation practices’ accepted for publication within a forthcoming edited volume.

Links

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