Faculty Focus


Plagiarize-Proof Your Writing Assignments


Plagiarism seems like a clear-cut crime: if the words of another author appear in one’s writing without appropriate attribution, that writer has “stolen” those words. U.S. higher education institutions take the offense seriously: minor cases often result in probation, suspension, or expulsion. This black-and-white perspective toward plagiarism, however, does not effectively identify, prevent, or resolve writing issues.

Plagiarism may flag instances of knowledge gaps or poor writing skills rather than malicious intent. In order to avoid academic conduct hearings involving your students, consider how the design of writing assignments can detect writing issues before they evolve into serious academic conduct issues. Consider these four strategies to help “plagiarize-proof” your course.

Evaluate your expectations for student research literacy.

Make a list of skills you expect students to possess on the first day of class. Consider also their level of expertise using action verbs from Bloom’s taxonomy. (For example, do you expect students to be able to distinguish the difference between a direct and indirect quotation, or do you also expect them to correctly write indirect quotations?) Start you list of items with this phrase: “Students should be able to…” and be as specific as possible to get an accurate assessment of your expectations of students’ prior knowledge. Here are some examples:

  • Articulate and identify the difference between direct and indirect quotation.
  • Write a basic author/year/page in-text citation from memory, and find more complex citation rules in an APA style guide.
  • Distinguish between an empirical article and a literature review.
  • Synthesize research by citing at least three articles in one paragraph.

After developing these written expectations, reflect on the students you teach.

  • Have their educational paths so far guaranteed that they come to your course with this knowledge?
  • Are there reasonable barriers that may make this knowledge incomplete?
  • What learning opportunities can bridge the gap between your expectations and their knowledge?

Reflecting on your expectations and your students’ preparation can help you determine whether expectations appropriately align with the course learning outcomes. For instance, someone teaching a research writing methods course should expect their students to be novices at research writing at the college level, which could result in mistakes in documentation and attribution.

Include unique or individualized elements into assignments.

Some writing assignments are more vulnerable to plagiarism, such as using writing prompts that haven’t been altered in several years or ones that are generic in nature. A paper about “climate change debates in the United States” is more vulnerable to plagiarism than one about “climate change issues as discussed in local high schools.” If your writing assignments must be broad, consider how the incorporation of student reflection into writing on these assignments can help you assess how well students understand the content they write. The next steps will also help.

Require an annotated bibliography before the assignment due date.

Procrastination can motivate risky and desperate writing behaviors. Students scrambling to finish a research paper two nights before it is due (even though it was designed to take weeks) are more likely to make poor writing decisions. To minimize the possibility of these poor decisions, require students to show that they have begun conducting research by submitting an annotated bibliography. I have directed students to annotate each source in four sentences: summarize the main argument, describe its research methods, share questions/analysis, and explain how it will contribute to the student’s research project.

The extent to which you have students show their research in progress depends on course level and size. If you teach a larger class, you could merely scan whether they have sources relevant to the assignment rather than fully grade and provide feedback. In my freshman composition course on research writing, I adapted one colleague’s practice of requiring a paper’s topic and sources to be “locked in” well ahead of time, meaning they could not add or drastically change the research they consult in the last stages of the writing process. This better ensures students avoid drastic last-minute changes or procrastinate their way into the plagiarism danger zone. Additionally, it encourages students to engage deeply with the research at hand.

Collect stages in writing development.

Similar to requiring students to show the progression in their research work, require students to engage in the writing process over a period of time. This can be done in a variety of ways that vary in how much time you dedicate to reviewing students’ writing process:

  • Use weekly journals for students to share their progress, barriers, and questions.
  • Facilitate peer review and encourage students to help one another with documentation and attribution.
  • Allow students to report more objective evidence of engaging in the writing process, e.g. visiting the university writing center or working with your institution’s librarians to locate or create instructional material on plagiarism.

While it is not possible to entirely “plagiarize-proof” a course, even minor changes to a writing assignment can reduce plagiarism and strengthen students’ writing abilities.

Christina Moore @fontanamoore is a virtual faculty developer with the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Oakland University.