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How do I create, support, and grade writing assignments?

Encouraging Academic Integrity in Writing Assignments

Plagiarism is an unfortunate reality of teaching writing. It is a largely avoidable problem, however, if we create the appropriate conditions and situations for writing. While it’s easy to assume that plagiarism is simply a problem of declining ethics, research shows that students plagiarize for a variety of reasons and that certain conditions actually contribute to the prevalence of academic dishonesty. Research shows that some of the reasons students plagiarize include the following:

So there’s the bad news: we know that students plagiarize and we know that they do so for a variety of complex reasons. The good news is that most of these reasons can be attributed not simply to the larger culture but to the culture of individual classrooms. That means we can do something about it. There are two keys to preventing plagiarism in your writing classes: (1) teaching students about plagiarism and (2) designing assignments that inhibit the opportunity for acts of dishonesty to occur.

 
  1. Teaching students about plagiarism
    This can be tricky because too often we assume that students who have made it to college should know what plagiarism is and how to avoid it, but very few of them have received direct instruction about plagiarism. Simply saying “don’t do it” isn’t enough. What do students need to know in order to avoid plagiarism??
    • Tell them what constitutes plagiarism in your class: Students hear different messages from different places, and the variations in citations styles across disciplines can be confusing, especially for inexperienced writers. Make sure that students know what the standards are in your class by putting your policy regarding academic honesty in your course syllabus and in the description of each of your writing assignments.
    • Teach them how to use sources responsibly: This means not only proper citation style, but also the process of evaluating sources and integrating them appropriately. Information is readily available, but it takes some thought to sort through to the good information. It takes even more careful attention to discern how another writer’s ideas work in relation to your own. A discussion of negotiating writing “voice” can help students understand what it means to use sources in an effective and responsible way.
    • Explain why an ethical approach to academic work is important: Because our livelihood and professional reputations depend on it, we take ethics in academic work very seriously. Our students often don’t take academic integrity as seriously because they don’t realize how high the stakes are. Explain it to them.
    • Illuminate how new ideas and knowledge are created: New ideas are always built on old ideas and “borrowing” from others’ ideas happens all the time—it’s an organic part of learning and creating. Help students learn to build on someone else’s ideas appropriately by giving them examples in your field.
    • Let them know you are more interested in teaching them than punishing them: Put your energy into teaching the importance of academic integrity rather than on outlining repercussions. Then, if students violate the standards you’ve set forth after they have worked with the concepts, hold them accountable.
    • Communicate that learning takes time and often requires a stage of simple absorption: As experts, we often forget what it’s like to be new to the concepts of our discipline. But, the fact is that any novice begins by simply absorbing the material we are presented with, which often means we inadvertently copy ideas rather than expressing them in our own voices. We have to recognize that this is not always a malicious act on the part of our students but is often a part of the learning process. We can try to keep this from leading to instances of plagiarism by giving students assignments along the way that indulge their need to absorb the information. Paraphrasing and summarizing activities can be very useful to help students work through this process.


  2. Designing assignments that inhibit the opportunity for acts of dishonesty to occur
    • Require students to do more than just report information. Design assignments that require higher-order thinking skills and/or creative, original responses to deter plagiarism.
    • Clarify expectations with each assignment. Students need to know what the boundaries are with each writing assignment they are given. Every assignment handout they receive should include the following:
      • Whether students are expected or allowed to collaborate,
      • Whether students can use material that they have used from another class, and
      • What kind of research they need to conduct.
      • What their specific task is.
    • Provide a list of specific topics and require students to choose from them. Allowing students to choose their own topics is appealing, however it also makes it very easy for them to find papers elsewhere.
    • Change topics from year to year. There are various ways that students can share papers, and if instructors give the same assignments year after year, they may have a wide selection of papers to plagiarize.
    • Require specific components in the paper. You know that there are hundreds of papers out there about symbolism in The Scarlet Letter, so what can you add to that assignment to make it harder for students simply to submit a paper they bought on the internet?
    • Require a bibliography and teach proper citation. It becomes more difficult for a cheating student to cover his/her tracks if a bibliography is required. Teaching proper documentation can also help well-meaning students avoid plagiarism.
    • Consider requiring drafts and interim due dates for specific research tasks. Students who have used their time poorly will often panic as a due date looms; this presents great temptation. If students have to produce multiple drafts and/or lead-up work, it becomes more difficult (and less tempting) for them to simply turn in a final product that is plagiarized.
    • Consider giving students a paraphrasing or summarizing exercise as part of the process. If students are going to have to work with a specific theory or argument in their papers, ask them to paraphrase or summarize the important parts of that argument in an informal assignment. This forces them to put the ideas they are writing about in their own words and reduces their reliance on the language of the primary text. It can also give them greater confidence in their knowledge and their ability to express it in writing. Both of these can help reduce the likelihood that they will plagiarize or cheat.
    • Give students opportunities to practice writing with sources. Students need to be able to practice using sources correctly in a low-stakes situation. Think about giving students a short writing assignment where they have to practice direct quotation and paraphrase.
    • Require a short reflection essay on the day students turn in a paper. Most students are not in the habit of thinking about their writing process. They can learn a great deal from having to think through and articulate the process they went through to arrive at a final draft. This insight can also help you in a case where you are uncertain if the student’s work is his/her own.

 

Here are some additional resources on avoiding plagiarism:

Writing at the University of Toronto, Deterring Plagiarism: Some Strategies

University of Denver Writing Program, How to Avoid Plagiarism

Writing Program Administrators Statement, Defining and Avoiding Plagiarism

For more tips on writing from ITLAL, see these pages: