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Rethinking Assignments

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Faculty Resources > Preventing Plagiarism > Rethinking Assignment Design



Rethinking 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.


Below are resources that list strategies for developing assignments that make the writing task distinctive and more engaging, either through the sequencing of its development or the form of the final product, such that plagiarizing would not work or would simply not seem worth it.  




Ranked Choices (in order of relevance)



This article provides insight and advice from three perspectives: 1) how and why students plagiarize, 2) strategies teachers can undertake to prevent plagiarism, from explaining the concept to designing effective assignments, and 3) techniques and tools for detecting plagiarism. Harris expanded this article The Plagiarism Handbook (2001) (ISBN: 1884585353).   

This Best Practices document offers perhaps the most in-depth look at designing assignments, syllabi, and courses to minimize the possibility of plagiarism.  The document argues that preventing plagiarism means more than putting a plagiarism statement on the syllabus and having a one-time class discussion, and makes the case that plagiarism prevention can be seamlessly integrated into a course‚Äôs writing and research on many levels.


This guide includes a section on "Plagiarism-Proof Assignments." The title is enticing, but the text itself merely offers a laundry list of 15 strategies to use in designing clearly defined assignments, with no further exploration of how to apply the strategies. Among the strategies not given in our own suggestions above are the following:


  1. Make the assignment clear
  2. Provide a list of specific topics
  3. Require oral reports of student papers
  4. Have students include an annotated bibliography
  5. Require most references to be up-to-date
  6. Require a meta-learning essay


Comments (1)

Anonymous said

at 4:08 pm on Apr 30, 2007

I tried to shift the emphasis a little bit away from why a student might be encouraged to plagiarize based on poor assignment design to the matter of why a well designed assignment would encourage a student to want to do original work. In each example, I countered the specific kind of plagiarism a particular strategy would discourage, and suggested the specific kind of originality and scholarly engagement it would also encourage.

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