Plagiarism, Attribution Theory, and BBQ Becky

So I’m working on my M.Ed in Educational Leadership at Belhaven University. One good thing about the program is it includes subscriptions to some useful software. The Microsoft Office suite and Grammarly are examples. The University has also purchased a subscription to a not so useful platform — Turnitin. Turnitin has become the bane of my graduate student existence.


A quick and dirty summary of Turnitin. It is an educational SaaS company that uses technology to help teachers identify “unoriginal content” by highlighting similarities to their massive database of internet, academic, and student paper content. Students upload their papers to Turnitin, and Turnitin processes the document and assigns an originality score. The originality score is a percentage of the words in a paper that are unoriginal. Unfortunately, many schools use Turnitin merely for the originality score.

You can see the danger in just looking at an originality score. My worst experience — when a professor initially refused to grade any student’s paper if their originality score was above an arbitrary threshold. The problem was this particular assignment required us to cite court cases in our response. Well…to Turnitin’s algorithms, San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez is the same “plagiarism” as copying someone’s original thoughts about the case. By default, Turnitin even includes reference pages when calculating the originality percentage. Turnitin has also faced controversies because of privacy concerns and copyright issues.

My biggest annoyance with Turnitin and any educational software is when educators try to use the technology as a substitute for common sense. Turnitin and similar services help foster an adversarial relationship between teachers and students. Instead of reading students’ work, considering context, and I don’t know…teaching, some educators on all levels are looking for shortcuts. Over a decade of experience as a teacher and a lifetime as a student have taught me that in education — there are no shortcuts.

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Computers are best at things like storage, calculation, and analysis. For example, comparing the originality of an essay to a database of millions of essays. Computers are pretty good at that sort of thing. Where humans shine is taking the results of the computer’s analysis and giving the numbers meaning by using experience, skill, and context. That’s teaching.

The costs of relying too heavily on sites like Turnitin is they encourage suspicion and cynicism. At first, I was offended and angry with my professor, not because of Turnitin itself, but because her message intimated that every student with an originality score above x, must be a cheater. That’s the danger with shortcuts in education. They discourage teachers from assuming positive intent. Do some students cheat? Of course! Should schools pay thousands of dollars for a subscription service to try to identify the small percentage of cheating graduate students? I doubt it. Surely those dollars would be better spent elsewhere.

Although it seems like I spent 500 words complaining about plagiarism software (and I sorta, kinda did), my beef is with how the technology underscores the negativity in our society.

Fundamental Attribution Error

Attribution theory is concerned with how and why people explain events the way they do. The fundamental attribution error is the tendency to explain another person’s behavior primarily in terms of their internal characteristics while ignoring external factors.

“A bright blue neon on a wall reads “Work harder”” by Jordan Whitfield on Unsplash

In education, teachers commit the fundamental attribution error when they attribute educational outcomes entirely to internal characteristics of students without considering external circumstances. Or when teachers attribute students’ academic failure to laziness or lack of motivation instead of considering external, environmental possibilities. That’s why I’m suspicious of the new “grit” movement. This phenomenon proposes that the only thing poor kids need to succeed academically is a little perseverance. This article explains the silliness of that argument far better than I could. The heart of the matter is minority students, especially low-income minority students have enough grit to last a lifetime. If a student with no water, no lights, and no food even makes it to school…that’s grit. I’ve seen it. If more teachers flipped their attributional style and assumed positive intent, schools would get a lot more accomplished.

Moreover, if people, in general, would assume positive intent, the world would be a better place. An example that comes to mind is BBQ Becky and her ilk. There’s been a rash of recent events where white people have called the police on black people for the most trifling reasons: barbecuing, napping, sitting in Starbucks, selling water, swimming…the list goes on and on. And that’s just in the year of our Lord 2018. Black people have to explain and defend everything they do. What is more mundane than taking a nap or sitting in Starbucks? Just a little attribution adjustment would go a long way.

Circling back to my graduate studies…as I finish up the program, I’ve decided to use this space to review the material from my classes and start writing about my interests in the intersection of education and data science. Writing about what I learned a year ago and applying that information to public data will hopefully help cement the concepts that are on the licensing exam. I can only afford to take it once!