Plagiarism Prevention Considerations in Assignment Design

Probably the best way to prevent accidental or even opportunistic plagiarism is to design assignments that reduce the student’s opportunity and incentive to merely copy and paste text from another source or to use a paper not written specifically for the assignment.  Success in a writing task involves understanding what that task requires and why mastering that task matters.  When the design of an assignment leads a student to believe that the task can be accomplished simply by cutting and pasting, or that they stand to gain nothing by creating original prose, aren’t we inviting plagiarism?  Designing assignments that ask student writers to achieve specific objectives is challenging, even for experienced teachers of writing.  It goes without saying that there is no such thing as a “plagiarism proof” writing assignment.  But there are a few key strategies that can make plagiarizing less possible and, just as important, less attractive.

  • Assignments can be designed not as one-shot projects, but as a sequence of tasks in which the student’s research and writing process is made visible and in which each stage builds from the previous one.  Not only does this eliminate the incentive to plagiarize often provided by the all-nighter, it also allows the student to develop a sense of ownership and engagement with the process of their project as it grows and takes shape.
  • Assignments can be designed to emerge organically from the course material.  For example, an essay assignment that asks for a lit review based on readings assigned in class is not only unlikely to exist in ready to cut-and-paste form, it is also more likely to give a student the conceptual tools to respond with an original contribution to the topic.
  • Experimenting with formats other than the “basic research essay”–annotated bibliographies, course unit proposals, editorials, introductions to collected essays–can avoid the most obvious paper mill fodder and can engage the student with scholarship as scholars actually practice it.

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