Designing Activities and Assignments to Discourage Plagiarism
Plagiarism is a serious topic raised frequently when we talk about responding to student writing, and it makes sense that we should want to talk about plagiarism in the context of evaluating and responding to student writing because it is at that moment—after the fact—that we discover that plagiarism or cheating has occurred. The University has provided instructors with a series of strategies for dealing with plagiarism. Thankfully, serious plagiarizers are the exception to the rule in most of our classrooms.
But despite warnings and the threat of punishment, plagiarism does occur, and with increasing frequency. The Council of Writing Program Administrators notes that “with the advent of the Internet and easy access to almost limitless written material on every conceivable topic, suspicion of student plagiarism has begun to affect teachers at all levels, at times diverting them from the work of developing students’ writing, reading, and critical thinking abilities.” 1 So, what can writing instructors do to stop plagiarism before it happens? What strategies are available to instructors as they seek to prevent students from committing the act in the first place? Teaching our students about proper use of sources and citation methods is an important part of discouraging plagiarism, and defining, discussing, and teaching proper use of sources and citation methods is a useful tactic. Experienced instructors concur that it is important to include information on plagiarism in their syllabi, perhaps confirming class discussions with “academic honesty contracts” or institutional “honor codes.”
In addition to these explicit efforts to discourage plagiarism, instructors can also think carefully about course and assignment design. As Sally Cole and Elizabeth Kiss (2000) point out in their article, “What Can We Do About Student Cheating,” “Students are most likely to cheat when they think their assignments are pointless, and least likely to cheat when they admire and respect their teachers and are excited about what they are learning.”
Options for Preventing Plagiarism
Although we may not realize it, the basic requirements for Comm-B and Writing-Intensive courses at UW include many pedagogically sound tactics for teaching writing—activities that can help discourage plagiarism. These guidelines ask instructors to:
- Develop discipline-specific writing activities that encourage students to learn and understand the discourse of a field of study
- Emphasize revision as a routine process for writing
- Conduct regular, one-on-one, in-depth conferences with students about their writing
- Devote class time to preparing students to complete writing assignments
- Implement regular, informal, ungraded writing tasks
- Keep class sizes small
- Ask students to provide regular feedback on their experiences with the course.
Additionally, here are some suggestions for activities that may help you and your students avoid problems, all of which are most effective at the beginning of a course:
- Share the University’s definition of misconduct with your students.
- Share examples of misconduct. For example, show your students an acceptable paraphrase juxtaposed with an unacceptable paraphrase.
- Talk regularly with all of your students about their papers in progress and their evolving ideas for their papers. Regular dialogue with your students not only helps students improve their thinking and writing but also discourages plagiarism.
- Remind your students about documenting sources. And ask them what they already know about documentation, so you can build from their existing experience.
- Decide what violating the rules means in your class. If your course or department does not already bind your course to a specific academic honesty policy, make a policy, communicate that policy to your students, and stick to it.
- Many instructors articulate their own or their department’s academic honesty policies in contract form and have their students sign the contracts at the beginning of the semester. Such a contract serves multiple purposes: it teaches students about their responsibilities as writers, alerts students that you care about academic honesty, discourages students from plagiarizing, and may help you if you have to deal with a plagiarism case.
The following is an example of an academic honesty contract used in my English 100 course.
Academic Honesty Contract
One of the fundamental principles of this university is that “academic honesty and integrity are fundamental to the mission of higher education and of the University of Wisconsin system” (Wisconsin Administrative Code 14.01). While what constitutes in-class cheating (copying the work of others, unauthorized use of prepared notes, etc.) is often obvious to students, plagiarism merits further elaboration.
In addition to the instruction you have received in this course, writing handbooks are excellent sources for learning how to avoid plagiarism. The writing center has an online handbook that can be accessed at www.wisc.edu/writing. Click on “Writer’s Handbook.” And of course, you may always talk with me if you have any questions about plagiarism.
Anyone who plagiarizes in this class will be reported to the Director of Composition and earn a failing grade in the course. Further penalties may include suspension or expulsion from the University.
Signing below indicates:
_______________________ (student) _________ (date) __________________________ (instructor) ________ (date)
Designing Assignments to Discourage Plagiarism
Beyond these best practices for teaching writing are several best practices for preventing plagiarism in the writing classroom. In a statement on plagiarism the Council on Writing Program Administrators recommends that instructors improve the design and sequence of assignments, noting that there are things we can do as instructors to design our courses so as not to invite plagiarism:
- Tailor assignments carefully to the content of your course. One of the riskiest things to do is to give generic assignments not tailored to the course. Offering students concrete and specific questions that are situated in the course’s content and learning goals can discourage infinite choice while helping students to understand your expectations. If you provide students with detailed paths of inquiry that are grounded in the subject matter and class activities, you’ll discourage broad, off-topic responses.
- Design assignments that require students to explore a subject in depth. Longer writing assignments that are sequenced (see section on sequencing at the front of this sourcebook)—i.e., “broken up” into smaller, incremental writing tasks—can significantly reduce the opportunity for plagiarism and allow students to think frequently and regularly about the course content and ultimately produce better papers. Activities like student peer review, summarizing sources, and short, sentence- or paragraph-length informal writing assignments as part of a longer, more formal assignment, require students to take ownership over their individual writing processes.
- Work with students to help select possible topics early. Soliciting questions about and criticisms of course material early on in the writing process can help the student begin to articulate a possible writing project. Some ideas include:
- Ask students to keep an ongoing, consistently revised list of readings and activities that they’ve enjoyed in the course, bringing the list to conferences for further discussion.
- If planning on a term project or paper, ask students to commit early to a broad topic. Then, provide students with due dates for annotated bibliographies, research questions, oral presentations, thesis statements, outlines, beginning paragraphs, etc. Students can (and should) mold their topics as they go, asking and answering questions as they complete the steps of the project.
- Students often report that the one-on-one time they spend with instructors is some of the most helpful and valuable learning they experience. Encourage students to bring their ongoing research to your office hours or to the Writing Center for help discussing how to narrow a topic. Time spent in conference discussing the research a student has already performed can help the student commit to a specific research question or topic that you’ve developed together.
- Develop and sequence assignment schedules for students that allow them time to explore as they work toward defined topics. Allowing space and time for students to master each challenge as they build toward a larger assignment builds confidence in students’ ability to truly learn and understand the material assigned to them. Students are much less likely to cheat if they feel confident in their abilities to master the material on their own. For example, if you regularly assign response papers in your class, think about asking students to first write summaries of the text they’ve been asked to respond to. Then, encourage them to conduct a peer review of those summaries online or outside of class. They’ll quickly find out from each other whether they’ve understood the text, and you’ll spend a lot less time grading summaries instead of critical analyses.
- Coach students through each step of the research process. Let students know that you understand how difficult the writing process can be, and then guide them through it. Many experienced instructors create and distribute handouts on how to find a research question, how to create and sustain a thesis, or how to conduct library research. These guides, written by you, are a wonderful teaching tool. In fact, we’ve included some excellent examples in this sourcebook. See the section on “Coaching Students to Succeed.”
- Make the research process, and technology used for it, visible. The idea here is to make research public. In other words, show students how you found and decided on the readings for the course. Offer up ideas for databases, search terms, websites, and clearinghouses that they can use in their information-gathering activities.
- Develop evaluation criteria that require students to address the particular questions in your assignment so that a “borrowed” or generic paper—no matter how professional—won’t be satisfactory. Sharing your evaluation criteria will communicate to students at the start that you’re holding them accountable for answering specific questions.
Though no assignment can be absolutely plagiarism-proof, some assignments are so heavily situated in the context of a course that they truly can make plagiarism less likely. While these assignments are creatively designed, they also require creative responses—not an easy task! Most important, they are designed in such a way that the opportunity for plagiarism or cheating is virtually eliminated, therefore boosting the chances that students will go to their instructors for help (rather than the Internet or a paper file).
- From Professor Virginia Sapiro’s Women’s Studies 102 course, this short, informal assignment asks students to adopt a different point of view in order to gain a critical understanding of information sources. As Martians just-arrived on Earth, students analyze current communications media over a two-week time period—an assignment so particular to time and place that it would be extremely difficult to plagiarize.
- In a History of the American West seminar, Professor Susan Johnson asks students to write a brief review of the first four books they read together as a class, drawing from the discussion that takes place during those first few weeks of the semester. The papers that result are therefore closely tied to class discussion as students address specific questions that a generic paper won’t likely answer.
- Rob Emmett teaches an introductory English composition course on argument and ecocriticism. A primary goal of Emmett’s is to help students understand the ways that ecocritics “think and write about non-textual mediations of our environment” so that students can understand argument as it takes shape outside of the readings they do for the course. By sequencing the assignment into small, incremental steps and by asking students to conduct original research in a localized space (the Map Library), Emmett makes it difficult for students to fabricate their research.
How does UW define plagiarism?
Plagiarism at UW falls under the umbrella of “academic misconduct.” According to chapter 14 of the University of Wisconsin System Administrative code, “Academic Misconduct Subject to Disciplinary Action; (I) Academic misconduct is an act in which a student:
- seeks to claim credit for the work or efforts of another without authorization or citation;
- uses unauthorized materials or fabricated data in any academic exercise;
- forges or falsifies academic documents or records
- intentionally impedes or damages the academic work of others;
- engages in conduct aimed at making false representation of a student’s academic performance;
- assists other students in any of these acts.” (UWS 14.03)
For further information about procedures and penalties imposed on students, instructors should be sure to visit the Dean of Students Office website at http://students.wisc.edu/doso/acadintegrity.html.
What do I do if I suspect a student has committed an act of academic misconduct?
The first thing you should do is carefully read the material from the Dean of Students. Then, we’d recommend you talk with experienced colleagues who’ve handled plagiarism cases before—especially directors of a course. Then, according to the University’s policies, you should set up an informal meeting with the student during which you share your concerns. But before you meet with a student, you need to have a clear goal and plan for what you want to accomplish during the course of the meeting. You should also imagine how the student might respond to your concerns; some students might get angry or cry in such a meeting, and others might quietly agree that they’ve handled the assignment inappropriately. Be prepared for various reactions.
In addition to consulting the university guidelines, you may wish to seek the advice of a colleague or your course coordinator. Additionally, you might consider having a colleague present at the initial meeting with the student. Use the informal meeting as an opportunity to explain your view of the problem. Then, be sure to listen and allow the student an opportunity to respond to your concern.
1 “Defining and Avoiding Plagiarism: The WPA Statement on Best Practices.”