Assignment Design and Its Role in Plagiarism

The relationship between the type of assignment and its resulting student product is new territory. Often times, faculty lament about the poor quality of student work, and often do not reflect upon poorly constructed assignments might play a factor in the lack of such quality, and may even invite or encourage students to be academically dishonest. Further complicating this issue is the immediate accessibility of electronic information which can be cut-and-pasted into a document effortlessly. Further, many assignments are based on information retrieval, and have no engaging purpose making plagiarism almost the logical outcome of the assignment for the students.

First, teachers should consider the following complicating factors in students' responses to assignments.

  1. Different countries have different ideas about the ownership of ideas. Some cultures encourage students to use other sources directly because they are not "owned" by the author, and because it is a form of respect or flattery to copy the master.
  2. Even if students are not from other countries, many have a hard time understanding that ideas are currency in US Universities. People's careers and economic securities are based on the ideas they generate and write about. Not giving status to such things, undermines their reason for being.
  3. Assignments often only ask students to retrieve information. They don't require students to engage with, take a stand on, or do anything else with course information. This puts students in the quandary of trying to present a paper full of others' ideas in some sort of interesting way without having a useful purpose. Is it any wonder that students unintentionally plagiarize?
  4. Different disciplines have varying standards on the type of information that needs to be cited. Common knowledge is defined contextually. While it is the burden of the writer to ascertain the level of common knowledge, students often find themselves taking courses in different disciplines with conflicting standards. This can be confusing to students.

Several things can be done by faculty to head off or lessen the chance of plagiarism. First, having a frank discussion with students about expectations within your discipline, and for your specific course is essential. This conversation should occur at all levels in all varieties of courses. This is not a discussion reserved by the folks who teach the introductory writing course. Since conventions vary from discipline to discipline, it's important that you inform your students about the expectations for your specific situation.

Second, it's important for faculty to realize that everyone across campus has the responsibility of teaching students to write and think. In these endeavors, we're all in the same boat, and have a vested interest in helping students think and write better.

Next, consulting useful pedagogical resources to design effective assignments and looking at ways to discourage plagiarism through effective pedagogy are important too. See Jamie McKenzie's article, "The New Plagiarism: Seven Antidotes to Prevent Highway Robbery in an Electronic Age", McKenzie asserts seven points in preventing plagiarism before it starts. According to McKenzie these include:

  1. Distinguishing the types and levels of research.
  2. Discouraging "trivial pursuits" or finding discrete facts just for the facts' sake.
  3. Emphasizing essential questions.
  4. Requiring and enabling students to make answers.
  5. Focusing on information storage systems.
  6. Using student friendly methods for citation.
  7. Assessing students' progress throughout the writing process.