How to Avoid Plagiarism in Your Classes

Those of us who teach writing know how to teach students to avoid plagiarism by teaching what it is, how to quote, and when to cite a source. It’s not that hard to teach students who want to avoid plagiarism what to do to make sure they don’t accidentally plagiarize. They need to keep good notes and indicate when they’ve paraphrased or quoted directly in your notes. Keeping track of sources and page numbers in your notes can help you, too.

That’s all well and good when you’re dealing with students who are using research in their writing and need to learn how to do it well. But how do you deal with the kind of plagiarism we often see in a lit survey or other course, where we really don’t expect a student to use a source. How do you keep students from finding information online or borrowing sentences or paragraphs from those sources when they shouldn’t.

My last post was about how plagiarism shouldn’t be punished (too harshly), especially if that punishment might more likely affect writers of color or others who hold less power. But what about the blatant, obvious plagiarism? Many people would argue that ought to be punished, and I might even agree. They would argue that consistent plagiarism in a paper goes beyond patchwriting or other understandable confusion about academic writing. Again, I might agree, but I’d also argue that punishment isn’t the best solution. It may be necessary once the plagiarism has occurred, but there may also be ways to avoid it.

Students plagiarize for a number of reasons, but the top reasons for the kind of plagiarism I’m talking about are: they don’t care about the class or assignment, they don’t think they can write or read well enough, they run out of time (poor time management or not enough time given for the assignment), or the assignment is too general or too easily plagiarized. To avoid plagiarism in your class, you need to think about when and where students tend to do it and figure out what you can do to make it seem less inviting.

When students don’t care, which is often true in a required course, it’s important to be enthusiastic to get them to care about their assignmets, but it’s also important to show them why the assignment will be beneficial to them. In a lit survey where most of the class are not English majors, it’s no surprise that many don’t care much about literature or writing essays. I try to explain how writing about something as messy as literature where there’s not one right answer but many and you have to defend your interpretation based on what you find in the text, is like writing about real-world problems. You develop skills of interpretation and analysis that you will use in many contexts, even if you never write about literature again.

This is also a way to set up another part of my argument against plagiarism. I tell them that I don’t want them to give canned answers. That the so-called ‘study guides’ make it sound like they have the right answer (or an impressive one), but in fact they don’t. They’re often wrong or at least they don’t approach the texts the way we have in our class, so if someone repeats that old-fashioned, worn-out interpretation, it shows me that they haven’t learned anything in our class. I want students to respond to the ideas we’ve discussed, not repeat ones they found somewhere else. And I’d much rather see them give a less-than-perfect interpretation and back it up with evidence from the text, than repeat tired ideas.

This is part of giving students confidence that they can read and interperet complex texts and that their ideas are just as valid as some that seem to have more authority. Another way to build that confidence is to include low-stakes assignments that ask for small chunks of interpretation. I often give writing assignments where I ask a very specific question about part of a text, and I ask students to give me their response in a page or two. This helps them look closely at a text and gain confidence writing about it. It also gives me a chance to catch plagiarizers when the penalty will be fairly negligible. If it’s blatant plagiarism, I can still report them, but if it’s patchwriting, we can have a talk about how to do it well (when to put some language in quotes and how to cite it). A 0 on a small assignment, especially one the can be replaced with another assignment later, won’t have the effect that a 0 on an essay assignment would.

Structuring your course so students have time to practice the skills they’ll need in their major papers is another strategy for avoiding plagiarism in a class that is often suggested. If I had an assignment where students often plagiarized, I would want to consider whether they did it because they didn’t feel confident about their ability to complete the assignment. In that case, how can I help them build confidence?

Time management is another issue that often leads to plagiarism, so I would want to look at that assignment and decide whether I’d really given students adequate time to complete it. I’ve seen quite a few plagiarism cases (as chair) on essay exam questions, where the assignment may have been more appropriate for an out-of-class essay than for an essay question on an exam. Students who can’t write a paper in that kind of time crunch might resort to copying and pasting from an online source. We think we can control students access to online sources during an exam, but there are always ways around our controls. Allowing more time might give students the opportunity to turn in better work and therefore lead to more learning in your course. Isn’t that what we’re after? Asking focused exam questions that can be answered in the amount of time given can also make it easier for students to decide not to cheat. There needs to be a balance between finding challenging questions that really test our students and not assigning questions that are so difficult they stress out and resort to academic dishonesty.

Scheduling can also be an issue to consider. I often get more plagiarism reports at the end of the semester. That should come as no surprise, since students are under a lot more stress then. If you have an essay due during exam week, you may want to reconsider the deadline. Setting the assignment due date before the end of the semester, while giving students less time, might actually help them to manage their time better and lead to better work.

Consider, too, whether you have given students the assignment far enough in advance. Or if you made the assignment early in the semester, did you give enough reminders far enough in advance, but not so far that students ignore them or forget? Setting up due dates in Canvas (our LMS) has been one of the best ways to get students to notice assignments, but they probably only see them one week out from the due date, so setting up an earlier assignment like an topic statement or bibiliography can help keep students’ minds on the final due date. We’ve all heard of scaffolding. It can be a way to build skills, but it can also be a way to build in a timeline for completing an assignment and help students with time management.

Finally, to avoid plagiarism it may be necessary to consider your assignments themselves. Do you ask questions in the assignment that are too general, too open to interpretation, and therefore too tempting to plagiarize? I’m all about allowing students freedom to choose their topic, but could you give a few more specific options? I’ve often resorted to having students compare plot points or characters between works (though character descriptions are one of the first things students plagiarize from those ubiquitous Notes). I try to select texts that aren’t as easy to find study guide notes for, and I try to ask questions that won’t be answered in those notes. At the very least, it makes it fairly easy to spot the papers that do include plagiarism, since they just don’t make sense or match the assignment — something I warn students about.

Ultimately, it’s easier to write your own paper than it is to get away with plagiarism in my class, and you will learn something of value by doing that. It shouldn’t be just about skating by and not doing the work; education should be about gaining skills that will help you out in life. If I can convince students of this and structure my course in ways that help students succeed, then I can vasly cut down on the number and the severity of plagiarism I find. If I catch it early and help students break the bad habits they bring to college, and if I can give them the time and the thoughtful assignments that help them build the skills they need, we will all be better off and the class will be a much more enjoyable experience.

Looking at when and why your students have plagiarized in the past, especially if you think it’s become more of a problem, and then reconsidering how you can structure your class to provide students the skills and time they need will not eliminate plagiarism, but it should go a long way to reducing it and making your life easier and your students happier.

Published by Kendall Dunkelberg

I am a poet, translator, and professor of literature and creative writing at Mississippi University for Women, where I direct the Low-Res MFA in Creative Writing, the undergraduate concentration in creative writing, and the Eudora Welty Writers' Symposium. I have published three books of poetry, Barrier Island Suite, Time Capsules, and Landscapes and Architectures, as well as a collection of translations of the Belgian poet Paul Snoek, Hercules, Richelieu, and Nostradamus. I live in Columbus with my wife, Kim Whitehead; son, Aidan; and dog, Aleida.

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