Designing 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.” 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:
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).
Other Sources of Information & Assistance
Phyllis Weisbard, an academic librarian at Memorial Library, developed an extensive list of online tips and resources for instructors (http://www.library.wisc.edu/libraries/womensstudies/plag.htm). She recommends several excellent strategies for designing writing tasks in order to discourage plagiarism. These include: