Productive Learning or Plagiarism? Sparknotes, Slader, and More

Beyza Tumturk, Senior Staff Writer

Last year, mathematics department chair Peter Shelburne adopted a new policy where he stopped collecting homework. Instead, he began giving pop quizzes with questions from the assignments, or “homework checks”. His main goal was to prevent students from mindlessly copying their work from other sources. As teachers are taking steps to stop the use of additional sources such as websites for homework, one might wonder if there is any way for a student to use such sources consciously without plagiarizing.

To plagiarize is “to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one’s own: use (another’s production) without crediting the source,” according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Using additional sources doesn’t necessarily mean you are plagiarizing; it depends on how you are using them. Only when the sources are used as a shortcut to finish work quickly does it classify as plagiarizing

For example, in the context of math and science questions, using websites such as to solve a problem is plagiarizing since you are passing off the work of someone else without giving them credit. By the same reasoning, writing for an English class using ideas you take from summary websites is also plagiarism, even if you did not copy the exact wording. 

Additional sources should be used to enhance your understanding of a subject or help prepare for an evaluation when they are used along with the assigned source. For example, reading an analysis of a book can deepen your understanding of the novel so that you can develop your own ideas. Reading a quick summary of a book before an in-class essay can be a helpful review of the plot line. When practicing problems for a math test, you can check your answers to make sure you are ready.

Plagiarism is wrong for obvious reasons and has serious disciplinary consequences, but that is not the only way it hurts students. Without understanding the assignments, it becomes harder to succeed in evaluations. This is because assigned homework teaches the necessary skills students need for tests. Moreover, creating time to learn during only a short period of time before the exam can cause stress and exhaustion. Learning how to solve problems also prepares us for college where plagiarism doesn’t work because the course load is heavier.

What are the alternatives? Asking questions to classmates and teachers, looking through the textbook, and watching videos that explain concepts. 

Placing integrity above schoolwork is especially important today when schools are participating in distance learning and rely on online assignments as well as online tests. Even though some of these alternatives are harder to do now, teachers hold office hours and flexible schedules to support students.