April 20, 2009

Are You Encouraging Plagiarism? Six Tips for Improving Your Term-Paper Assignments

By: in Teaching and Learning

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Take the plethora of information available online, add the ease of which students can cut-and-paste material, throw in lots of pressure to get good grades, and plagiarism becomes an appealing option to almost any student.

Arthur Sterngold (citation below) holds students accountable, but he doesn’t place all the blame there. Some of the blame, he contends, belongs to us and the way we design assignments. Take, for example, the traditional term paper, which often is assigned at the beginning of the course, worth a lot of credit, completed outside of class, and due in final form at the end of the course.

Sterngold maintains that the term-paper assignment can be designed so that it is almost impossible to plagiarize. Here’s a sample of the design features he recommends:

  • Break up major research papers into smaller assignments — “Dividing a research assignment into a series of more manageable components forces students to work on the project over time instead of trying to write the entire paper at the last minute when they may be most tempted to plagiarize.” (p. 18)
  • Require students to write about course-specific topics — The advice here is to tie topics closely to course objectives and content. “I often require students to write research papers relating course topics to campus speakers or current news events.” (pp. 18-19) The more course-specific the paper topic, the more difficult it is to find material that can be directly pasted into the paper.
  • Choose some required source material for your students — Select major reference works in your field and sources you know well. Students are less likely to plagiarize if you have demonstrated your knowledge of the sources.
  • Incorporate assignments into class discussions and tests — “I frequently call on students during class discussions to give examples from their … research that relate to the day’s topics.” (p. 19) This practice encourages students to work more persistently on their papers at the same time it makes clear who is not working on their paper.
  • Meet with students to discuss their research — This reinforces the importance of the assignment and helps students develop the kind of comfort and familiarity with their topic and sources that ends up making them confident enough to rely on their own ideas and opinions.
  • Require students to submit printouts of source materials — This all but ensures that students won’t plagiarize from these sources. If it sounds cumbersome and daunting, Sterngold reports, “Reading over the students’ article-packets is less tedious and time-consuming than you might fear if you assign research topics that interest you.” (p. 20)

If a student is determined to plagiarize, no set of strategies is failsafe. But careful assignment design can decrease the motivation and make the plagiarism process a much more difficult one.

Reference: Sterngold, A. (2004). Confronting plagiarism: How conventional teaching invites cyber-cheating. Change, May/June, 2004, 16-21.

Excerpted from Designing Assignments to Minimize Cyber-Cheating, The Teaching Professor, January 2005.

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