November 7, 2007

Strategies for Preventing Student Plagiarism

This text was initially published by Profweb under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 International licence, before Eductive was launched.

While interviewing Laurence Nixon about his use of the Shared Drive at Dawson College, he mentioned the document we are reproducing below on plagiarism. Dr Nixon originally presented this information at an information session at the college. This is an example of the quality of information that circulates in the collegial system often without wider distribution. Profweb is pleased to be helping to remedy this situation.

Some general recommendations for the prevention of plagiarism

1. Educating students

We should not assume that students know what plagiarism is, nor that a brief discussion of it is sufficient.

As in everything else, most students need a clear and comprehensive definition of plagiarism, as well as examples of what is acceptable and non-acceptable paraphrasing (Harris, 2-3).

An entire class could be spent on the topic, along with exercises in paraphrasing sources. On the one hand students have to be taught that individual words that they find in their sources do not have to be put in quotation marks; and on the other hand, they need to know that a borrowed sentence with one or two words replaced by synonyms is not acceptable. (This is a skill students will find useful the rest of their lives.)

  • Students need to have explained to them that not just direct quotations, but every source of information that is not common knowledge (or derived from their own research or experience) needs to be referenced.
  • If the project is partially a collaborative one, students need to be told just what degree of collaboration is permitted.
  • Finally the penalties for plagiarism need to be made clear.

2. Designing assignments that students will find interesting

It helps if students are provided with assignments that they will enjoy undertaking i.e., if it is something that interests them.

3. Alleviating deadline pressures for students

One of the reasons students are tempted to plagiarize is that they get into a time crunch. They fall behind in a few or all of their courses and the next thing they know it is almost the end of the semester and every teacher requires a major assignment at a date close to the end of term.

  • We can help our students by having, if possible, an earlier due date than is customary. I try to have my major assignments due just after mid-semester. By this time students have learned enough to be able to apply their knowledge in a paper, and the competition for their time is not as intense. This approach has the added advantage that once classes are over, I don’t have to go chasing after students who are late in submitting their assignment.
  • Another way we can help our students is by requiring that parts of the paper be submitted over the course of the semester (Harris, 4). By requiring students to work in easily manageable stages, the temptation to plagiarize is greatly reduced.

For example, we could tell the students that by February 10, they must submit an interview schedule; by February 23 the transcription of their interview with a local social activist; by March 9 their content analysis of the interview protocol; and by March 17 a one-page set of conclusions based on the content analysis.

4. Being accessible to students who need help in doing assignments

Dr Laurence Nixon at work

Every teacher has office hours and provides students with his or her office phone number, and even with an e-mail address, but often the students who most need our help don’t take advantage of these means. A strategy that I have found helpful is the following. As the due date for an assignment approaches, I ask if anyone in the class needs help. If there are such persons, I end the class ten or fifteen minutes early and spend the time with them, going over what it is they are having trouble completing. This strategy not only helps to avoid plagiarism, but it also reduces the number of students who never submit their assignments.

5. Getting ideas from colleagues on specific strategies that worked for them

My experience, during the relatively short time I have been at Dawson College, is that the faculty are extremely willing to share their teaching experience and materials with other teachers. New teachers especially should be made aware of the fact that they do not have to reinvent the wheel. Other teachers are usually only too happy to be of assistance. Having said that I would now like to describe thirteen strategies that I have found helpful in the past or that I am interested in using in the future.

Specific preventative strategies

1. Changing assignments from one semester to the next

The temptation to submit a previous student’s work is clearly increased if an instructor uses the same assignment year after year. Inventing new assignments for a course that is regularly taught is a good preventative strategy and often the change only needs to be a minimal one.

2. Making clear the requirements of the assignment

One strategy for avoiding plagiarism is to make what is required very clear and precise. By doing this a lot of student (and faculty) frustration is avoided.

For example, we can indicate the type of data we want analyzed, the type of argumentation we want used, and the format we want the assignment to follow (Harris, 4). We can also mention things like whether or not we permit verbatim quotations from secondary sources, etc.

3. Requiring a specific topic or topics, especially unusual and narrowly focussed topics

Unusual topics with a clearly-defined narrow focus are good for avoiding plagiarism (Harris, 4).

For example, in my Judaism, Christianity and Islam course this semester, the major assignment was to analyze a North American mosque, the information on which was to be accessed through the mosque web site. The students had to read what several authors said were the unique features of North American mosques (as opposed to mosques in traditionally Islamic countries) and then to say to what extent the mosque they had chosen conformed to that pattern.

4. Requiring specific sources, methods or theories

Some examples are the following:

  • Apply the model of conversion to a deviant religious perspective developed by Lofland and Stark to any one of 40 conversion accounts available on the shared drive.
  • Write a paper on the Treaty of Versailles using two books, from the Dawson library; and two articles, the full text of which are available through ProQuest.
  • Use any theory covered in class to analyze the statistical data available on the shared drive.

5. Having the project relate to course content

In the description of the assignment an instructor can require the use of a source explained in class.

For example, students could be told that they have to find an article through ProQuest (or some other database) that describes a method of teaching preschoolers to read, and then compare that article to an article that was reviewed in class.

6. Requiring only recent secondary sources

On the outline for the assignment, it can be specified that the only sources that can be used are, let us say, those dated 2004 or later (Harris, 5).

7. Providing the students with a very specific outline for their paper

One way to prevent students from submitting a paper they obtained online, or from another student, is to provide an outline for the paper in which you identify the sections you want included and what you expect to have done in each section.

8. Using an assignment that is specifically related to the course textbook or to class discussion

Create an assignment that is specifically related to the course textbook or class activities (Bates & Fain).

  • For example, ask students to first paraphrase a position taken by the author of your textbook, explicitly identifying the sources, arguments and conclusions, and then to find evidence and arguments that both support and contradict the author’s position.
  • Or the students could be asked to have one section in their paper that takes account of a discussion, debate, talk by a guest speaker, etc that took place in class.

9. Using local primary sources

It is very difficult to find papers on the internet which analyze things which are of primarily local interest. Some examples of paper topics using local primary sources are the following.

  • Using the principles of critical thinking that we learned in class, analyze an editorial of your choice from the Montreal Gazette.
  • Do an iconographical analysis of a painting in the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.
  • Describe and analyze a ritual performance in a religious centre in Montreal.

10. Having one or more sections of, e.g., the research report, written in class

Students can be asked to produce part of their assignment in class, and as a result they will have less to do on their own and will be more highly motivated to complete the assignment they have already begun (Leland, 2).

For example, in my Research Methods course, students have to write the method and the results sections of their research report in class, and produce their raw data and analysis tables in a lab. These are submitted, corrected by me, and returned to the students. Students are thus less tempted to look for another study online, not to mention that it would be virtually impossible to find a study that had exactly the same variables, respondents, data, etc.

For almost any assignment, students could be asked to write some part of it in class and then submit it for correction to the teacher. Then when they turned in their completed paper, they could be required to attach the corrected part that was done in class.

A somewhat similar approach is to ask students to analyze a text, an image or a video in class by filling out a form or chart, which they then submit for correction. The corrected form or chart is then used as a basis for a written paper, which must be accompanied by the corrected form or chart, when submitted.

For example, in an Introduction to Religion course, I had students fill out a chart that was designed to help them analyze characteristics (e.g., lighting, type of camera shot, camera angle, sound track, etc) of a video on a Hindu ritual. First they submitted the completed form to me for comments, then they got a chance to see the ten-minute documentary a second time. When they turned in their final written analysis, it had to be accompanied by the corrected chart.

11. Requiring an oral presentation on some aspect of the research for the assignment

Oral presentations need not be longer than two or three minutes, but they could be required to contain an account of some part or aspect of the research or writing process (Harris, 5). Such orals could also provide occasions for the teacher to explain to the class as a whole some of the ways in which various obstacles can be overcome.

12. Having students write an in-class meta-learning essay on the day the paper is due

Let students know that on the day the paper is due they will be required to write an in-class reflection paper on how (and where) they found their sources; on the problems they encountered; and on the most important thing they learned about both the topic and the process of doing the assignment.

In addition to countering the tendency to plagiarize, a reflection paper of this kind can suggest to the instructor, ways in which the assignment can be improved for future use.

13. Requiring photocopies of sources

Ask students to provide photocopies of the pages in their sources that they refer to in footnotes or in parentheses. Note that if a student paraphrases an argument from an article he or she does not have to submit a photocopy of the entire article, just of the page on which the argument appears.

This strategy will discourage students from deliberately plagiarizing and also from providing fake citations. In addition, it will enable the instructor to see how successful the student has been in paraphrasing information or an argument from a source (Burwell et al; and Bates & Fain).

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