Plagiarism can be avoided if you design your writing
assignments with care. Here are some things to keep in mind as you create a
writing assignment for your course.
Engagement First, ask yourself, “If I assign this, will the papers I get back be something I want to read?” Never assign anything you don’t want to read. If it is not going to engage you, it won’t engage your students. Guaranteed.
Audience Writing solely for the instructor is dreary work. In her book, Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention will transform the way we live, work, and learn, Cathy Davidson noticed that her students at Duke were often much better writers in their blog posts. Davidson said she was “shocked that elegant bloggers often turn out to be the clunkiest and most pretentious of research paper writers. She speculated that bad writing might actually be a product of our academic expectations. “If students are trying to figure out what kind of writing we want in order to get a good grade, communication is a secondary point of writing. What if “research paper” is a category that invites, even requires, linguistic and syntactic gobbledegook?” “Research indicates that at every age level, people take their writing more seriously when it will be evaluated by peers than when it will be evaluated by teachers. Online blogs directed at peers exhibit fewer typographical and factual errors, less plagiarism, and generally better, more elegant, and persuasive prose than classroom assignments by the same writers.”
One of the most successful writing practices we have seen at the University of Idaho is the use of blogs as a place for students to share first drafts and get peer feedback. Students are graded not on their drafts but rather on the quality of the feedback they give, which is modeled by the instructor and requires the use of language from a rubric the instructor provides.
Scaffolding Many students end up plagiarizing because they run out of time; they haven’t been given enough practice in the process of writing. Requiring students to turn in outlines, drafts, annotated bibliographies* for feedback—especially peer feedback—can greatly reduce the incidence of plagiarism. At some point it becomes more work to plagiarize than to simply write.
Originality Generic assignments are easy to plagiarize. And in fairness, who really wants to add to the pile of papers that have been written about Hemingway’s use of style and structure in A Farewell to Arms or the general impact of deforestation on biodiversity? Create an assignment that is unique to your course, perhaps one that asks students to consider viewpoints from an assigned article, a YouTube video and a class discussion. For some creative examples, check out Alice Robison’s Sample Assignments section in her online article Designing Assignments to Discourage Plagiarism.
Trust Everyone functions better in an environment where they are presumed innocent. Check to see that your syllabus focuses more on providing students with resources to avoid plagiarism rather than on the consequences. Keep in mind that some forms of plagiarism are considered unintentional. The Council of Writing Program Administrators has a Statement on Best Practices that can help you determine intention.
*If you are working online, consider using a social bibliographic rather than requiring students to hand in their annotated bibliographies as documents. Tools like Mendeley and Zotero can help students begin thinking about their scholarly work as a whole and encourage them to develop their research profiles.