Submitted by Jennifer Lau-Bond, Library Services
It’s paper writing season at Harper, and as a librarian one common question I hear from faculty around this time is, “What can I do to stop plagiarism in my classes?” My typical answer is, “You stop it before it starts.” Stopping plagiarism begins long before you ever read final student essays or projects.
Here are some tips to get you thinking about how you might design your courses and assignments to discourage plagiarism and encourage good writing and research practices.
#1: Clearly define plagiarism and proper source use
Don’t rely exclusively on the syllabus to address plagiarism. Share examples of plagiarism as well as correct use of sources and ideas, and make sure students know which citation style you require and where to get help with citing. Remember that plagiarism can be defined differently in different contexts. For instance, different cultures, disciplines, and faculty have varying perspectives on cheating, use of sources, and documentation. Be sure you outline these terms in the context of your discipline and course.
#2: Focus on avoiding plagiarism when talking to students rather than punishing it
You should definitely explain the consequences for plagiarism, clearly and explicitly. Keep in mind, however, that if students don’t know how to avoid it, consequences can only be so persuasive. Let students know you’re available to help them, not just “catch” them.
#3: Teach incorporating sources and citation in your class
This may mean teaching one big lesson or several mini-lessons during class time, it may mean assigning some online videos or an exercise as homework, or it may mean working with the Library or Writing Center to schedule a class or one-on-one appointments with students. Often faculty assume students learn these skills “somewhere else,” when in reality many students have had little-to-no instruction in these areas. Consider whether your students need explicit instruction about plagiarism and citing in your class.
#4: Include the use of sources in grading rubrics
If you value how students incorporate sources into their work and how they document them, make it an explicit part of the grade. Of course, this strategy alone won’t prevent plagiarism, but it does send the message that it’s important. Lay all this out in advance in the assignment description and rubric so students will know exactly how they’re being assessed.
#5: Have students turn in each step of their work
Break down the assignment into steps, and offer feedback on each step. Possible steps might include: topic brainstorming, research question, annotated bibliography, first draft, final draft, printouts/PDFs of all sources, etc. When you can see a student’s ideas and words developing over time, it gives you a better sense of when ideas or words may not be their own. Most importantly, however, it models good planning for students and shows them how a large paper should be broken down into steps. It helps space out their work, encouraging them to avoid the last-minute panic that can lead to plagiarism.
#6: Assign something other than an essay
Sometimes essays are the best assessment option, but consider going beyond essays if appropriate. Alternative writing assignments might include mock magazine articles, blog posts, group writing assignments, in-class writing activities, etc. Non-written work might include recorded video or audio, debates, presentations, or visual projects. Keeping expectations varied is not only engaging for students but can reduce opportunities for plagiarism.
#7: Have students complete some work in class
Obviously this is trickier in asynchronous online classes, but post-COVID or for classes with live online meetings, giving students the opportunity to work in class helps scaffold their time, offers you a glimpse of their process, and provides them with a chance to get help. You could do a topic brainstorming session, a thesis workshop, research exercise, or even just free writing time. You can even do some of this work on asynchronous discussion boards.
#8: Conduct one-on-one meetings with students
If practical, require students to meet with you to discuss their process and ideas, inside or outside of class. This allows you to hear from students directly and check their progress. It also provides them with the opportunity to get help before they reach a panic point. If direct meetings aren’t feasible, a journal you review regularly where students report on their work or ask questions can serve a similar purpose.
#9: Tie assignments to other class work
Have assignments respond to lectures, discussions, specific readings provided by you, or other activities from class. This makes it more difficult for students to “hire” someone to write their papers, and it has the added benefit of encouraging attendance or participation.
#10: Focus on critical thinking skills
The more students have to think critically and synthesize what they’ve learned from multiple sources, the harder it is for them to do something like copy and paste from the Internet. Try Googling your assignment prompts, too. Does the first page include results that basically answer the question you posed? If so, consider asking students to dig deeper and consider a question that might not be so easily answered.
Bonus Tip: Check out the Library’s “Understanding Plagiarism at Harper”
The Library has a video and quiz unit about plagiarism. You can use the video on its own to introduce your students to the basics of plagiarism, or pair it with the online quiz to check for student learning. (Students can even forward their quiz results to you if you want to assign credit for the activity.) Librarians can also speak to your class about how to cite information. Just place an instruction request!
- Design Principles that Promote Learning & Honesty: This blog post summarizes ideas from Dr. James Lang about designing learning experiences that discourage cheating. These bigger picture tips apply to both testing and writing considerations.
- Plagiarism-Proofing Your Assignments: This document from a college writing center offers many general and specific ideas about designing your classroom and assignments to discourage plagiarism.
- Teaching Guide: Dealing with Plagiarism: If you would like to learn more about plagiarism overall, this tutorial from a college writing center provides discussion of what plagiarism is, why students do it, and tips for helping them avoid it.