Weekly Teaching Note
Oct 12 2011
Using SafeAssign as a Teaching Tool

I honestly believe that most students who plagiarize do not do so deliberately or maliciously but because they don’t understand summarizing, paraphrasing, and documenting well enough to avoid it. I have found a way to improve students’ understanding. SafeAssign is a plagiarism detection program that is built into Blackboard (turn it on inCourse Tools). While many faculty use it as just a way to catch student plagiarizing, I use it as a teaching tool for students, as well.

I use SafeAssign in both my face-to-face and online courses. First, I create a “SafeAssignment” in Blackboard (in a Content area, Evaluate-Create SafeAssignment), where students can submit their drafts before a set deadline. This works best if it’s the day before you want them to use it in a face-to-face class. I reserve a computer classroom/lab so that we can have an interactive activity with the output from the program. Students (and I) get a report that shows what percentage of their papers are plagiarized, or usually simply not cited correctly. This tool highlights incorrectly or not-at-all cited passages and links them back to their original sources. In my face-to-face courses, I have students form pairs or trios to look over each other’s papers and reports to correct their citation errors… or to see if they can spot the errors the program has made.

The program is not perfect—it does mark correctly summarized or paraphrased and cited passages as plagiarized from time to time. This is sometimes due to the student using a citation format with which the program isn’t as familiar (I’ve had the most problems with CSE, ACS, and AEEE), but more often it is due to the information being cited in an article that SafeAssign has found but that the student did not use (the student found the info in another source and cited it correctly).

Students get quite competitive to see who can get the lowest percentage reported on the draft, and they get defensive when the software ignores signal phrases that help to correctly cite a source or fully correct citations. Cries of “But Dr. Mills! I’m right!” are often heard in the computer lab on the days that my students review their drafts. Since this is part of their peer review process (points attached!),it’s rare that I have students miss these sessions.

In my online classes, I encourage students to download the reports and upload them to the discussion board for help solving any part of the reports they don’t understand. I make this optional for them, but at least half of each class always participates. For the final paper in one course—a research paper—I make it extra credit if they do it and add an entry to their research journal about what they learned about their papers from the reports. 

Additionally, I also use SafeAssign to submit suspicious “final” copies of papers if I can’t find the original source via a quick Google search, but I have had fewer plagiarism cases since I’ve started using this tool. The main problems with SafeAssign are the lag time (you don’t instantly get the report back—sometimes you may wait for hours) and the occasional inaccuracies. A thinking human being (you!) still needs to read and consider the results, which often leads to great in-class(and discussion board) conversations in my classes. As long as SafeAssign gets students excited about working hard to document correctly, even if it turnsdocumentation into a game for them to master, I’ll keep using it!
For help in setting up SafeAssign within your Blackboard shell, contact TBLS—staff members are available on both New York campuses each week. (Contact information is available at http://www.nyit.edu/nyitonline.) To follow up on any of these ideas, please contact me at fglazer@nyit.edu. This Weekly Teaching Note was adapted from a contribution to the Teaching and Learning Writing Consortiumsponsored by Western Kentucky University.

Wren Mills, Ph.D.
Instructional Coordinator
Faculty Center for Excellence in Teaching
Western Kentucky University
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