Although plagiarism detection tools can assist instructors to catch cheaters, a better alternative is to design writing assignments that discourage such behaviors in the first place. On top of that, each of the techniques discussed below can result in better writing from all students, not just those who might be tempted to cheat. By adopting three simple principles, not only will you find yourself dealing with fewer plagiarism cases, but you'll also provide more opportunities for your students to become better writers!
Establish a baseline
Early in the semester ask students to write a page or two. This assignment should be low stakes, either for no grade or worth just enough points to incentivize participation. No research should be required for this piece. Instead, it can be either a response to an initial reading or an autobiographical essay describing the student’s relationship with the course content.
An assignment like this provides you with two important things. First, you’ll have some vital information on the students’ preparation for your course which can help you tailor your lessons for them. Second, you now have a sample of the student’s writing. If you find yourself investigating cheating down the line, you won’t need to analyze the suspected writing against some database. Instead, you can pull out this piece from the start of the semester to see if the grammar, punctuation, vocabulary, and other elements of styles match up to the suspected piece.
Some instructors place unnecessary focus on the final product of the assignment, as if that were the only object worthy of the instructor’s attention and feedback. Instead, cheat-resistant assignments consider writing as a process, a series of steps, each of which merits its own scrutiny and feedback.
To achieve this sequencing, many instructors will find it necessary to cut down on the total number of final deliverables. Instead of, for example, students producing three papers over the course of a semester, you might have them write only one or two final products. In turn, what previously you might consider to be “the paper” becomes the last link in a sequence of submissions.
A typical example of sequenced assignments might be something like the following:
Going through each step with your students will result in better final drafts, as it allows you to intervene earlier in the process. You can, for example, warn off students who select overly broad topics in their proposal. Or you can steer students towards better avenues for research if you see that their annotated bibliography is weak.
Additionally, this method makes it easier to see when a student makes a sharp left turn. This allows the instructor to look for things like a sudden deviation from the proposed topic, the reliance on research outside what appears in the bibliography, or a final draft that looks nothing like the first draft. None of these are necessarily proof of cheating; they could be evidence that the student is taking the project seriously enough to make major revisions before the final submission. However, if this major shift also produces writing that is stylistically different from your baseline as described above, then you know that you have a situation worth discussing with the student.
Prompt explicit revision plans
Sometimes when we write feedback for our students it can feel like we are sending it out into the ether. Whether what we have to say reaches their ears and whether they actually respond to it can be a mystery, especially if we only communicate feedback to them at the end of the paper-writing process. Feedback shouldn’t be about looking back at what students did wrong. Rather, proper writing feedback looks ahead to what students can do to make sure they succeed at their next writing task.
In the case of a sequenced writing assignment as described above, the feedback from the proposal should be written with advice for the research needed for the bibliography. The bibliography feedback should be aimed at what the student does in the first draft and the first draft feedback should inform the final draft. This is the difference between condemnation and critique; your feedback should be about equipping the student with what they need to succeed in the future.
Don’t assume that the students will take up your feedback and incorporate it in later steps. Instead, the incorporation of that feedback should be an explicit component of completing the assignment. You may even want students to hand in a short narrative of how your feedback from the previous assignment was used to shape the current one. This creates a formal relationship between steps in the assignment.
With such a relationship established, it becomes much easier to spot unusual writing activity from a student. If you suggested a particular strategy for the next assignment in the chain and instead they adopted a completely different approach that also seems significantly more sophisticated than the baseline writing assignment, you may have reason to suspect something has gone wrong. Of course, your suggestion may also have sparked a new, and different, idea in your student. You’ll need to use your discretion to determine the nature and cause of any drastic changes.
Ultimately, we need to be open to the possibility that the student has made significant progress as a writer since you last checked in with them. That is, after all, the point! That’s also why open and clear communication about your expectations for student behavior is important. By adopting these three principles, you can build writing assignments that not only discourage cheating, but that also help students improve their writing skills. And isn’t that why we are assigning them papers in the first place?
Jeff Rients, Ph.D., is Senior Teaching & Learning Specialist at Temple University's Center for the Advancement of Teaching.