Amy Mahoney

Creating an Open Dialogue About Plagiarism for Parents and Students

Amy Mahoney, English Teacher
Mahopac Central School District


In using Turnitin to create an open learning environment, Mahoney has not only minimized instances of plagiarism, but also has saved time managing her courses and vetting assignments for plagiarism. In so doing, she has ensured academic integrity even in the face of parental opposition, improved student's understanding of plagiarism, and encouraged original thought.

Turnitin: Welcome to the Turnitin Educator Spotlight Series! My name is Kenneth Balibalos. Joining me today is Amy Mahoney, English teacher at Mahopac Central School District and an Academic Integrity Honorable Mention for the Turnitin All-Stars Award Program. Welcome Amy, thanks for joining us today.

Could you tell us a little bit more about yourself?

A.M.: Okay. My name is Amy Mahoney, and I teach at Mahopac High School. It’s my 16th year--give or take a little bit of time for three maternity leaves--and I teach 12th grade expository writing, and, code writing through film, which I also use Turnitin for. I think I rely heavily upon it equally for both classes.

I think Turnitin is one of the most wonderful learning tools. I think citing a document correctly is one of the hardest things to learn and one of the best ways to learn how to do it is to do it on your own the first time, show a kid an originality report and say, "Look, this is what Turnitin is coming up and saying that you did. Let's sit down and fix it.
Amy Mahoney, Mahopac Central School District

Turnitin: What have you been doing with Turnitin to promote academic integrity and to minimize plagiarism in your classes, in your district, in your institution?

A.M.: From 9th grade on, we want each kid to have one account and all of their classes through that account. We also have every teacher use Turnitin to accept major assignments. In my opinion, the originality check has truly motivated them to hand in their own work. For me personally, I don’t accept work that isn’t submitted through, and it’s not because I’m trying to catch someone doing something wrong. It’s really because I want them to get into the habit and force themselves to rely on their own thinking at this point, and not on sources or on each other.

It’s such a valuable tool when we do have to go to a disciplinary hearing over it, because there have been some serious incidents where parents have really come at not just me, but members of my department, and other departments in the high school. Once you have that originality check to show the parents, it just shuts down the whole meeting--it is so nice to have a tool that says look, this is how it works, and this is what your son or daughter did. Before we had Turnitin, I felt like I was seeing things that were probably plagiarized often, and there’s only so much you could do about it. Not only does the plagiarism filter let me really have proof when someone does plagiarize, it has eliminated the instances of plagiarism to about two to three a year, which is a huge decrease for me, because I teach about--over the course of the two semesters--over 200 students.

Turnitin: You spoke about encountering parental opposition. What did the process of talking to parents look like before you used Turnitin and how has it changed now?

A.M.: If you were ever suspicious of a student plagiarizing, the #1 problem after being disappointed in the student, was the time that it took to really nail down whether or not it was plagiarized. Whether it be going through old papers or surfing the internet to find a match, it would take hours. Now, obviously it takes seconds. Even with Turnitin, when we do have an incident of plagiarism, there are a few parents every year who still really press hard to get around the consequences. With Turnitin, it just shuts that down. Here it is. Look for yourself, and we send it to them. We scan them a copy of the originality report, and nine times out of ten they’ll say, “Thank you very much. We’re sorry we wasted your time.” It’s just such great reinforcement to have that originality report there as your backup.

Turnitin: Now, is it mainly the case that there is blatant plagiarism and that those penalties are enacted, or do you also encounter students who just don’t know about plagiarism, who commit plagiarism unintentionally?

A.M.: One of the things about it that’s so great about Turnitin is that it absolutely does help us filter out the differences. There is such a clear difference between a kid who cites incorrectly and a kid who cut and paste an entire document, put their name on it instead of a different name and pass it off as their own. Before Turnitin, it was a little bit hard to differentiate that. But now you can kind of see if something is definitely just worked in there--when it’s supposed to have been a quote--and it’s either paraphrased-- an attempt at paraphrasing that really didn’t paraphrase (that really just changed a few things here and there)--or was an innocent instance of plagiarism. Turnitin really does help you highlight that, and that’s one of the most wonderful learning tools.

I think citing a document correctly is one of the hardest things to learn, and one of the best ways to learn how to do it is to do it on your own the first time, show a kid an originality report and say, “Look, this is what Turnitin is coming up and saying that you did. Let’s sit down and fix it. How do you go about and do this correctly so that you learn how to do it?” They sort of get the knack after they see that, which is nice, and it’s much easier to do it. A lot of the kids are visual learners, and so they’ll see the highlight in red, and they’ll say, “You’re right, it did come back as plagiarized.” Then we go back and we fix it together, which is also a fantastic learning tool.

Turnitin: How do you incorporate academic integrity practices and Turnitin into your class? Where do you start?

A.M.: My class is really what I would call like a warm-up for college. We use a textbook that a lot of the local state schools use, and we try to model the course after them. So, right there we’re doing a whole college readiness thing. My class lives in, because not only are they uploading their homework and their longer extended paper assignments there, we also are on the message board all the time.

And one of the things I love about the message board is that for some of the kids who are shyer and who might have had a great thought in class about something we were talking about--but they just don’t want to raise their hand and say it--later on that night, I do usually have a message board post, and that’s where they all go, and they comment on whatever we did in class. And a kid who’s less likely to speak out in class can sort of find his or her comfort zone right there in the message board, and you only get credit on your message board assignment if you have an original thought. So they’re motivated to be the first people to get there, and it’s sort of instead of a longer extended assignment where they have to critically think the entire time, this is just a quick little five minutes; what do I have to say about this? Throw it up there on the message board, and then they comment off each other.

Turnitin: As a final question, What is the reason why every assignment that you have, whether it’s a small assignment, a major assignment, why only accept it through Turnitin? Why is it so important to you?

A.M.: I only accept all of my assignments--both major and minor--through Turnitin for three reasons. The first is that it’s way too easy to find answers to things on the internet, and my class is a semestered class--so half of the senior class will take my class from September through January, and then the second half will take the same class February through June. It’s extremely tempting to just share assignments, so right there, I want to give my students the benefit of the doubt, because the majority of them are wonderful, honest, great kids who would never even consider plagiarizing in the first place, but it does eliminate the temptation to go that route.

Second, for me, and this is probably on a personal level, the organizational aspects for a teacher through Turnitin are so completely superior. It has saved me so many hours using, because whether it’s a small assignment or a large assignment, everything’s submitted digitally. You can’t lose it. It’s impossible to lose it. It’s right there. You cannot second guess the timeliness of a submission. The time and the date that they submitted it is right there. You don’t have to lug the papers home. They’re all there. I think has saved me infinite hours of looking for papers and copying grades into the grade book and then onto my digital grade book through the school. My whole system is just that one website now, and I can’t express enough how organized it has made my life, and I would say as a teacher that’s probably one of the hardest things. You want to spend your time on creating great lessons and giving the kids good feedback, and there’s only so many hours in the day. Turnitin keeps the feedback saved for the kids. They can check out their papers even after they’ve left school...even after they’ve graduated. Also, as a teacher, it has eliminated so much time trying to regroup and reorganize papers and things like that. It’s all right there.

Turnitin: Thank you so much for taking the time to share your experience with us. I’ve been talking to Amy Mahoney, English teacher at Mahopac Central School District.