Friday, November 26, 2010

Check your paper for plagiarism

What a savvy concept (that’s underused): check a paper’s first draft for plagiarism before final submission. Students do a “spell check,” so why not a plagiarism check?

A plagiarism checkup’s benefits are manifold. A student spotting mistakes beforehand saves both the student and instructor the aggravation of a messy paper that could have been cleaned up earlier. The student learns some basics of preventing plagiarism the easy way, instead of the hard way. Deliberate plagiarizers discover, before they get themselves into trouble, that they can’t get away with it.

There are free sites, besides Google, that are useful tools for such a checkup: the University of Maryland’s The Plagiarism Checker ( and For a modest fee, there’s

Preferably, though, students are enrolled in Turnitin and can submit their draft themselves and read the Originality Report for a good analysis. (Not all instructors are aware of the first draft checkup feature of Turnitin, especially the newbies to Turnitin.) A five-step checklist is available to aid students in interpreting their Originality Reports (, linked from the ACC Library Research Assistance page. But even with Turnitin, the free sites and even Google are useful as supplementary tools—it’s not unusual for Turnitin to miss stolen text that the free sites will pick up.

Learning styles: a myth?

A topic for your argumentative paper?: "learning styles" are a myth.

Click the title above for the full article, which starts this way:

We’ve all grown up being told that we learn better in different ways: some by doing, some by seeing, some by hearing… This notion supported by the very real feeling that we do, in fact, absorb information better in some learning environments than in others. Well, the Association for Psychological Science now says that learning styles are all a bunch of hooey. They have reviewed all recognized studies that claim that a “visual learner” or an “auditory learner” exists, and have concluded that those studies “have not used the type of randomized research designs that would make their findings credible.” That being said, it is still entirely possible that “learning styles” actually do exist, but basically what APS has declared is that nobody has ever sufficiently proven it.

So you think you know how to study?

(An article from National Public Radio (NPR)):

Find a quiet location. Keep a routine. Focus on one subject at a time. It all seems like sound advice for students who need to hit the books, but recent studies indicate the conventional wisdom is all wrong.

New York Times reporter Benedict Carey has written about the research. He tells NPR's Neal Conan that though a lot of ideas about learning make intuitive sense, they're actually way off.

Here's a list of Carey's tips for getting the most out of your study time:

Test yourself: Doing practice quizzes can help you retrieve information on test day. "Tests have a very bad rap as a measurement tool," Carey says. But psychologists have found self-tests slow down the forgetting of material you've studied. "If you study something once, and then you test yourself on it," Carey says, "you do better than if you study it two times over."

Move around: Changing up where you study can help you retain more information. "If you move around and study the same material in several places," he says, "you may be forming ... multiple associations for the same material, the same words and so on. So it's better anchored in your brain, and you can pull it out easier."

Mix it up: Think about a football player who does strength training, speed training and drills. Carey says alternating between different facets of a subject in a single sitting can "leave a deeper impression on the brain." For example, when studying French, do some verbs, some speaking and some reading. Spending your time in deep concentration on just verbs, say, isn't as effective.

Space it out: Information learned in a hurry is lost just as fast. Carey likens cramming your brain to speed-packing a cheap suitcase — it all falls out. So if you really want to learn, space out shorter, hourlong study sessions. "There's no doubt you can cram your way through an exam," Carey says. The problem is that it's so easy to forget what you just crammed — and once it's gone, Carey says, "It's gone. You're not getting it back."

Of course, nothing can replace the power of motivation and discipline. But Carey says the overall message is encouraging: "Studying can sort of be incorporated into a more varied life, much more easily than we thought."

Not cool: the Web page is not dated

No date!

(Things about websites that may drive you crazy, but can be overcome by a savvy student. These same things are also lessons to the wise for mistakes to avoid when you yourself create your own Web content.)

You find some great information. Even scholarly articles posted to the Web by authors who should know better. But nowhere do you find any date attached to when that information was posted or published. So you start to wonder: how recent is this information? Is it outdated? Can I rely on it? Should I bother with it? Is it five months old, or five years old?

Obviously, currency often equals reliability and value, when it comes to information. It is a major criterion for evaluating a source or website. And it drives you crazy when no date is to be found!

Of course, if you’re a savvy scholar, you will find other sources that will have the same valuable information, with clear dates of publication. That should be no problem if (1) you’re willing to put in enough time to do the research, and (2) the topic is not so esoteric that other sources cannot be found.

But always take everything with a grain of salt—even if a date is on a website document, there’s nothing to prevent fraud and dishonesty. It usually doesn’t happen, but keep in mind that it can. And if there is a date on a Web page, is it clear that this is date of the posting of the document or when the whole site was updated?

At any rate, never let your guard down, no matter how great the information may look on the surface. Keep muttering the Reagan mantra—“trust, but verify.” By verifying, that means finding corroborating sources with the best possible credibility and credentials.

Not cool: no "about" information on a website

No “about” information!

(Things about websites that may drive you crazy, but can be overcome by a savvy student. These same things are also lessons to the wise for mistakes to avoid when you yourself create your own Web content.)

The About information about a site is especially helpful when you discover a site by googling. The “About” link on a website is practically a default, an automatic section of a site that introduces you to the nature of its content. Reading the about may give you some time-saving clues as to how worthwhile it is to explore it further, whether its information will be pertinent or reliable for your information needs. (The same holds true about the “bio” information about the website author or authors.)

It can be frustrating to encounter that occasional site that doesn’t seem to want to tell you anything about itself or its creators. You have to navigate through the site to really get a good idea of what it’s about. It’s even more puzzling and annoying when a major national site of high repute has little or no about information. Does the site think it’s so well-known that no introduction is needed? An about should tell us the purpose and scope of the site, who its founders and contributors are, date of its creation, and so on. Sometimes the only way you can get about information about a site (if it is one of those really prominent ones) is to go to a Wikipedia article on it! I’ve done that quite a number of times when trying to describe a site that I’ve bookmarked in Delicious for the Library or myself.

Savvy students: throw away your flash drive?

Sony and other computer manufacturers have announced they will stop manufacturing floppy disk drives soon. Floppy disks are going the way of eight track players, and, more recently, cassette tapes. The technology dinosaur graveyard keeps getting bigger.

Flash drives (thumb drives, pen drives, memory sticks) are one of the latest gee whiz tech advances—carry gigs of storage on your keychain. Wow, what’s next? A biological chip implant into your brain that will blur the difference between external computers and your internal computer? (Perhaps not that far-fetched.)

And then flash drives will go away too?

Forget about chip implants, there are other developments that are casting a shadow over flash drives.

Flash drives (thumb drives, pen drives, memory sticks) are one of the latest gee whiz tech advances—carry gigs of storage on your keychain. Wow, what’s next? A chip implant into your brain? (Probably not that far-fetched!)

Flash drives come with their own downsides, one being the fact that it is easy to lose them or misplace them. How many people reading this have forgotten to take their flash drive out of a computer they were using, walking away and potentially losing your saved documents forever? Just what I thought: most people are raising their hands.

This is doubly scary, because of the huge storage capacity of flash drives, some people use their flash drives as either another drive for their computer or as an external backup drive. As an additional drive, you may create or download something on your flash drive away from your main computer, intending to save it to your computer eventually. Or, as a backup external drive, you have all your computer’s stuff on the flash drive, so that if your computer dies or gets stolen, you have your data backed up.

In either case, if you lose your flash drive, you could be up the creek. Using your flash drive as the all-purpose Swiss knife of storage can lead to trouble.

For backing up your computer, instead of relying entirely on your flash drive, you should use an anti-virus program that does that as part of their service, or use one of the automated backup Web services. Also, you could use an old-fashioned external hard drive to back up, which you keep hidden away in your home or office.

Using your flash drive as a temporary parking spot for your data is still the main (and best) reason to use a flash drive.

But let’s come back to my point above, about the downsides of a flash drive, especially the danger of losing it (or even damaging it—I heard about a flash drive that went in the washer, and came out still working!)

There is help for this flash drive bugaboo of losing your flash drive or leaving it in a computer and walking away. More hi-tech than tying a string around your finger are some free programs that help remind you that your flash drive is in the computer and needs to be removed. Other types of apps can even encrypt your information on your flash drive if it gets into the wrong hands. And there’s a suggested way to create information on your flash drive that tells who to return it to. I’ve bookmarked these free app sites at

There’s still another solution to the downsides of a flash drive. This may seem radical: get rid of your flash drive for a better alternative. What a concept!

This solution is espoused by some: use a free online storage service that not only can be your computer’s backup, but also virtually replace your flash drive. One such service that is highly touted is With DropBox, everything you do on a computer gets saved to the online storage, as well as automatically to every computer (and smartphone) in which you have created a DropBox folder.

I won’t reinvent the wheel and give you all the details of how DropBox can do this for you, instead go to an educator’s blog that has done a good job of explaining this:

This DropBox way is just about the ultimate solution for security and convenience for your computer. It’s called “cloud computing,” where you rely on an a website to provide the tools that you otherwise would have to provide yourself in terms of software or hardware.

But will I get rid of my flash drive? No way! Let’s say I believe in “redundancy,” where you don’t place all your eggs in one basket—instead you try to have as many baskets as is reasonably possible to maximize the safety of your holdings.

While cloud computing may be the best thing since sliced bread, I still believe in being neurotically cautious without going to the extreme of paranoia. There was once a site that bookmarked your favorite Web pages (not Delicious, which is what I use). Well, a not so funny thing happened—the site crashed, and everyone’s bookmarks were permanently lost. Admittedly, such a disaster is extremely rare, but the moral of the story is that nothing is 100 percent foolproof. After all, didn’t an ordinary British bloke hack into the Pentagon computers, not to mention reports of the Chinese doing the same thing? That’s why you can’t go wrong with redundancy. Think of it as insurance.

Maximizing quality of research results

Quality means reliable, trustworthy, authoritative sources (part of an information literacy skill set).

Here are tips and tools for the savvy scholar to use to maximize the quality of research:

1. Often the researcher perceives an “information overload”—too much information. This oversupply of information consists of too much seemingly useable information, or too much information that is “noise”—lots of search results, but little relevance. The task often becomes separating the “wheat” from the “chaff”–sorting out the best information.

2. Keep in mind the quality pyramid: as quality increases, the quantity decreases; the highest quality sources will be harder to find at the narrow top of the pyramid; the least reliable information will be more plentiful at the wider base of the pyramid.

3. Starting at the base is all right to familiarize yourself with your issues and topics (newspapers, popular magazines, popular sites), but use the highest-level sources (scholarly) near the top of the pyramid for your final sources of information and cited sources.

4. Use library subscription databases to find peer-reviewed scholarly articles.

5. Use and searches first in Google and Yahoo! for government and university sources before you use the rest of the free Web.

6. Use search engines that search the “deep Web” (aka “invisible Web”), which has quality information missed by ordinary search engines like Google and Yahoo! Deep Web search engines to use:,, and

7. Use Web subject directories and collections with human-selected compilations of sites organized by topic or searchable by topic:,,,,,,

8. Investigating, questioning the information: “trust, but verify.” Don’t blindly or on faith accept even the most authoritative information as the final word. Do other experts or studies agree or disagree, to what extent, and why or why not? How easy is it to corroborate your information or argue its merits? Remember, even the most reliable sources have errors and disputed information (

9. Ultimate truth is elusive, but sound research and reasoning is attainable by employing information literacy and critical thinking. (Critical thinking links:

10. What are the credentials, reputation, and objectivity of the organization or author providing the information? How recent is the information? Analyzing the “source” can be as important as investigating the information itself. Know the criteria to use in evaluating websites: