Plagiarism-Proof Assignment?

by Karen Hollingsworth Gardiner, Academic Integrity Initatives

It’s a catchy “click-bait” title: “Plagiarism-proof Assignments.” Unfortunately, it’s also a myth. There’s no such thing. If students intend to plagiarize, they will typically find a way, despite our best efforts.

The good news is that most students don’t intend to plagiarize, and there are things we can do to help students avoid the plagiarism urge. (See Tips on Assignment Writing for many practical suggestions for developing plagiarism-aware assignments).

In addition to these suggestions, teacher support and student engagement are two important elements of developing plagiarism-aware assignments.

Teacher Support

A former colleague in the English Department used to say, “If you assign writing in your class, then you should be prepared to be a writing teacher.” He did not mean you need to be an English teacher. Instead, he meant you should be pro-active in how you prepare your students for your writing assessments. What skills will they need in order to successfully complete your assignment? And, how will you help them practice those skills in class prior to the assignment’s due date?

James Lang echoes my colleague’s observation in the “Instilling Self-Efficacy” chapter of his much-acclaimed book, Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty, when he talks about the value of flipped classrooms for reinforcing the skills to be assessed by course assignments (see, especially, pp. 143-46). Students are less likely to cheat when they understand how to do their coursework and when they are given opportunities for practicing the necessary skills with teacher guidance and feedback.

(NOTE: Jessica Kidd talks about another form of teacher support — using TurnItIn at the draft stage in the writing process for providing valuable pre-assessment feedback in “Turnitin is a Process Writing Tool, Not a Panacea.”)

Student Engagement

Student engagement — what James Lang calls “fostering intrinsic motivation” in Chapter 4 of Cheating Lessons —involves helping your students to care about their learning by providing them with meaningful assignments and assessments. Active and hands-on learning strategies and experiential learning opportunities not only help students to value learning (intrinsic motivation) over grades (external motivations) but they also are, in Lang’s words, “virtually uncheatable” (p. 61). He also recommends Ken Bain’s What the Best College Teachers Do as a resource for this kind of engaging assignment development.

It’s not enough just to say, “don’t copy” on the first day of class. Combatting plagiarism requires more pro-active approaches. And, while helping students connect to course materials in meaningful ways and providing the necessary scaffolding for the component tasks of your assignments will not prevent all plagiarism or other forms of student cheating, research shows that (1) developing engaging, plagiarism-aware assessments that promote student learning instead of just grade-seeking and (2) offering timely support and feedback can help to create an environment of integrity in the classroom that may curb a struggling student’s impulse to plagiarize.

Dr. Karen Hollingsworth Gardiner is a professor of English and the coordinator of Academic Integrity Initiatives in the College of Arts and Sciences.