CofC Logo

< Back to News & Events / Back to Library Home

Plagiarism and Assignments That Discourage It

A great post sent out by Rick Reis from Tomorrows Professor on how Instructors can “lesson the temptations of students to commit fraud by avoiding traditional assignments.”   For more great tips subscribe to TOMORROW’S PROFESSOR at

Plagiarism and Assignments That Discourage It
Concerns about plagiarized papers in college used to be connected to a fling cabinet at the fraternity house. Those days seem nearly quaint in light of how widespread the problem has become. Students learn how to use computer programs and the Internet at an early age. Many report that they were not corrected in high school when they copied text from a Web site into a paper without citing the source. No wonder some of them come to college feeling puzzled about the fuss surrounding plagiarism.
An assignment such as, “Write a 15-page paper on Dante’s Inferno” or “write a 10-page paper on the financial failures of the Stock Market in 1987′ is unfortunately an invitation, especially for students who are short of time, to go to the Web where papers that suit the requirement can be purchased for $40 to $70 on sites such as Schoolsucks and Termpapers. Sadly, these sites even offer papers on demand, written by freelancers to fulfill a specific assignment.
In some courses, instructors locate a free student paper from their discipline on the Web and ask their students to read it and critique it as a small-group activity in class or as a threaded discussion on a class Wed site. This exercise lets students know that you’re aware of what is available, and it gives them a chance to be thoughtful about the actual quality of the free papers.
Instructors can lesson the temptations of students to commit fraud by avoiding traditional assignments. The two chief methods of doing so are to use the activities and conversations in your own class as a basis for assignments or to use novel assignment structures.
The first type depends upon stretching the assignment to two or more phases. Link activities and discussions from the classroom to small tasks that may, if it suits you, become part of larger assignments. An example of ways to break down the writing of a term paper can be found on pp. 135-141 in chapter 10.
Another technique to employ is that of scaffolding, a term connected to Lev Vygotsky’s (1978) Zone of Proximal Development, described in chapter 2. Scaffolding requires the instructor to guide a student to what the student is learning, “engage students’ interest, simplify tasks so they are manageable, and motivate students to pursue the instructional goal” (Riddle & Dabbagh, 1999). Essentially, the teacher needs to mediate between the student and the task to keep the student attached to and believing in the project. With such involvement from both sides, the likelihood of plagiarism decreases dramatically.
Here are a few additional ideas:

  • Assign teams to interview each other on course readings or assignments and prepare an appropriate summary.
  • Use pairs to “pass the baton.” Create an assignment with two parts. Have one student complete part one, then have the student pass it to his or her partner, who must rely on what the first student did, to complete part two. You might also have the students switch roles for another pair of activities. The pieces can, of course, be modified according to the goals of different assignments and to a variety of media.

Some methods for creating alternative assignments would be to:

  • Ask students to interview a local person regarding actions or policies relevant to your course content.
  • Ask students to write a dialogue between two people they have been studying.
  • Ask students to create a list of paragraphs, quotes, or sample problems from sources you give them or sources you tell them to locate. Such a task resembles an annotated bibliography, but instead of the typical forms of annotation, students will locate a piquant or cogent paragraph, explanation, diagram, problem set, or comment type that you designate. As with a typical bibliography assignment, they should include all citation information.
  • Ask students to employ their knowledge about a media form to analyze material. They might create a portion of “directors notes for the destruction of an overpass, a re-creation of a historical event, or the announcement of a merger.
  • Use the form of a letter or a memo with invented roles for students and the audience the memo is addressed to.
  • Invite students to adopt the voice or style of a newscaster to report on and then analyze and event in your discipline.

Another direction to take, which overlaps with the suggestions above, involves asking students to discuss points made by other students during a discussion in person or online.
Another source of assignments is your department. Compare assignment ideas with your peers. Lots of suggestions float around that can be modified for your purposes. The more inventive you are, the less likely that students will fulfill the assignment in a fraudulent manner. A final reason–not to be overlooked–for developing an assignment in an unusual way is that students may attend to a creative assignment partly because they will be excited by the novelty of the design. They are accustomed to the kinds of class activities that are so familiar to all of us. A fresh way of approaching a problem can be captivating and intriguing.


Riddle, E.M,, &Dabbagh. N., (1999). Lev Vygotsky’s social development theory. Rerieved December 3, 2007, from

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind and society: The development of higher mentl processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.