Designing Assignments to Discourage Plagiarism

Alice Robison
What can instructors do to design assignments that will discourage plagiarism? Alice Robison offers some suggestions and ideas.

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.” 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, instructors can think carefully about course- and assignment-design.

Options for Preventing Plagiarism

What Do We Do Already?
Although we may not realize it, the basic requirements for Comm-B and Writing-Intensive courses at UW (see “Criteria for Comm-B and Writing Intensive Courses”) include many pedagogically sound tactics for teaching writing, tactics that can help discourage plagiarism. These guidelines ask instructors to:

1. Develop discipline-specific writing activities that encourage students to learn and understand the discourse of a field of study

2. Emphasize revision as a routine process for writing

3. Conduct regular, one-on-one, in-depth conferences with students about their writing

4. Devote class time to preparing students to complete writing assignments

5. Implement regular, informal, ungraded writing tasks

6. Keep class sizes small

7. Ask students to provide regular feedback on their experience with the course.

How Design Can Help
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:

1. 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.

2. Design assignments that require students to explore a subject in depth. Longer writing assignments that are sequenced —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.

3. Work with students to help select possible topics early. Allow students to engage in the rhetorical process of invention early on in writing process. Soliciting questions about and criticisms of course material can help the student begin to articulate a possible writing project. Some ideas include:

a. 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.

b. 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.

c. 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.

4. 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’ abilities 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.

5. 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.

6. 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.

7. 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.

Sample Assignments That Discourage Plagiarism

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).

1. 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.

Martian Media Watch
You are a Martian who has just arrived on Earth and, because you are an extremely intelligent being, you pick up a complete command of English in no time. You understand from the earthlings you encounter that the mass media of communication are used regularly on earth to keep people informed of all the important things that are happening. Pick one news medium and follow it carefully for at least two weeks. You may pick one daily newspaper to read every day, or watch television news every day (including some "news analysis" shows) or read a selection of news magazines. You may pick a limited number of news sites on the internet. What do you learn about gender from these media? What, especially, do you learn about women? In the course of your discussion, pay attention to the "quality" and intended audience of your chosen medium (for example, is this an elite, national newspaper such as the New York Times?) Consider: is the sampling and approach to the news you found the only possible way that news source could have dealt with gender issues at that time? How would you explain why the news was structured as it was in your source(s)? Be sure to integrate your observations into the arguments and observations of the research literature on the mass media.

2. 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.

Review Essay
Write a formal 3-4 page paper that examines and evaluates ideas about “the West” and “the frontier” in the first four books we’ve read collectively (Limerick, Taylor, White, and Cronon). You do not need to concentrate equally on each of these books. And you do not need to limit yourself to a literal reading of what these authors say about the actual terms “the West” and/or “the frontier” (indeed, only two of the authors engage in a wide-ranging discussion of the terms). Instead, you need to make a coherent argument about the intellectual conception of the West or the frontier that emerges from your reading of these four books. Is “the West” a meaningful concept that helps us to understand the historical situations described and analyzed in these books? Is “the frontier”? …These are among the kinds of questions you may want to answer in your paper. Obviously, you can’t answer all of them, and you may have questions other than these that you wish to raise. But your paper should pose a historical question and then answer it relying on the readings we’ve done in common so far.”

3. 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.

Essay: Ecocriticism of Visual Arguments
Find at least three maps of a single geographical area (e.g., the city limits of Chicago, the state of Nebraska or Togo) from three different historical moments (i.e., each should be at least 50 years apart). Analyze the visual arguments made by these maps and consider how and why this representation changed over time. You will need to compare and contrast these images. Your thesis for this option should evaluate these historical changes in representation and possibly predict what a future map of this area will look like based on current trends in land-use or social structure. (For example, the map covering San Diego, California and Tijuana, Mexico could be redrawn in sixty years as one city-state, “Nuevo California.”) What is included and excluded from the maps at different times? Whose purposes do these exclusions or inclusions serve? Do later additions to the map represent progress? How or why? Include facsimiles of the images in your final portfolio. In addition, it is vital that you incorporate what you have learned in our study of maps and other visual representations of space, especially the arguments made in the oral debate project (forthcoming).

Other Sources of Information & Assistance

Phyllis Weisbard, an academic librarian at Memorial Library, developed an extensive list of online tips and resources for instructors ( She recommends several excellent strategies for designing writing tasks in order to discourage plagiarism. These include:
1. Have students do some in-class writing; compare the writing style to out-of-class writing.
2. Have students turn in photocopies/downloads of several pages from each source used.
3. Have students include their search strategies and locations of the actual material (ex: campus library and classification number for books, including page numbers for bibliographies within books that were sources of additional articles; which periodical databases they used and which search terms in those databases -- if they used web sources, which search engine and search terms did they use, etc.).
4. Have students exchange papers (or redistribute anonymously) and ask them to locate all the articles cited in the bibliography.
5. Turn web term papers into a student project: have students locate and critique a paper related to the course subject, or have students compare and contrast several websites on the same topic but from very different perspectives. Librarians can help find such examples.

Final Thoughts
Overall, most experienced writing instructors can agree that good composition pedagogy takes time and preparation. It involves careful thinking about learning goals and realistic implementation of activities. In time, instructors become keen to the behavior of their students, knowing which assignments work well and which are less successful. If we keep close watch on how students learn from writing assignments, creating the types of activities that keep them in control of and excited about their writing, we can learn to design activities that maintain a plagiarism-resistant environment.