Solving the Patchwriting Problem, Part 3: Teaching Paraphrasing/Avoiding Patchwriting

a 10 step gray scale useful to calibrate monitors and scanners.

by Karen Hollingsworth Gardiner

Merriam-Webster.org, considering whether or not “patchwriting” should be added to the dictionary, suggests that the concept is a gray area, a sort of “less judgmental midpoint that can be seen as a ‘teachable moment’ rather than an all-or-nothing accusation of plagiarism.” This is especially the case with writing that is still at the draft stage of the writing process, writing in progress but not yet turned in for a grade. See, for instance, Jessica Kidd’s post about TurnItIn.

In the College of Arts and Sciences, of course, once a paper has been submitted for grading, suspected cases of plagiarism — including instances of patchwriting — must be turned in for review by the College’s academic misconduct monitors. Only they and the Dean can make a determination of guilt — or degree of guilt — and assign sanctions. Fortunately, the College now has a coordinator of academic integrity initiatives who can do remedial work with accidental offenders, so that these underprepared students aren’t merely caught, punished, and released. But it is a teaching concern, as well.

The notion of patchwriting as a teachable moment may strike fear in the hearts of some teachers. If it’s not even yet a word, if it’s so nuanced that it might be either accidental or intentional, how can we teach students to avoid it? The answer lies in being proactive, rather than reactive.

Here are a few ideas:

  • If we give students a writing assignment, we should also prepare them to write it. We can’t assume they know our discipline’s writing conventions — or how to summarize, paraphrase, quote, and cite sources in our fields. A supportive lesson, an example-rich handout to accompany clear written assignment instructions would be welcome to most students — especially younger students.
  • We can encourage students to ask questions and seek our help when they encounter unfamiliar concepts or tasks.
  • We can include links to campus resources on our syllabi.

Here are some instructor resources that may also help:

  • Visit the For Faculty tab on the Arts & Sciences Academic Integrity website. The Faculty Resources page may offer solutions. There’s also a For Students tab you can direct your students to, and they can register there for free refresher workshops offered each semester.
  • Turnitin offers a Paraphrase Pack of a dozen lessons, a video, and a rubric for helping students who struggle with paraphrasing — especially students struggling with correct and ethical paraphrasing — so that they avoid failed paraphrasing or patchwriting.
  • For reading comprehension problems, have students annotate and use their reading notes to summarize or paraphrase course readings — early and often, with formative feedback.
  • The Poynter Institute for Media Studies offers a graphic flow chart that may help you talk with your students about plagiarism — including paraphrasing and patchwriting.

Many of the students I work with think they are paraphrasing when they are actually patchwriting. They’ve never learned the difference. And learning the difference might make a real difference — for them and for us.

group of people joining hands


Dr. Karen Hollingsworth Gardiner is a professor of English and the coordinator of Academic Integrity Initiatives in the College of Arts and Sciences. This series was written in memory of Jesse Cosper, a GTA in Dr. Gardiner’s fall 2018 EN 532 course. Before his untimely death, Jesse was planning to write a Teaching Hub post on patchwriting.