Designing Assignments that Foster Academic Integrity

Assignment design is key to encouraging integrity in students’ work. There are three general principles that should be followed when designing assignments: specificity, embeddedness, and process.

Specificity

  • The more specific the assignment the less likely that an off-the-rack essay will fit its contours. Never ask students to write about some book or other—essay topics need to state their starting point, which ought to emerge from the specific context of the course.
  • The assignment objectives also need to be stated clearly, and students informed that papers that do not address those objectives will be graded harshly. A plagiarized paper, unless it is written to order, is unlikely to achieve those objectives. If the unprovably plagiarized paper gets a D+ because it is off topic, the plagiarist is unlikely to do it again. The more clearly defined the topic, the more legitimate such punitive grades become.
  • Concrete ideas for creating specific assignments include:
    • Use assignment topics that are unusual or have a narrow twist.
    • Have students prepare papers for an audience other than yourself, i.e. other classmates, a decision-making body, etc.
    • Require students to use specific sources for their papers, i.e. a certain number of recent sources, websites, journal articles, personal interviews, personal surveys, etc.  (Harris, 2001)
    • Design assignments that involve modes of writing other than argument and exposition, such as explanations, problem-solving, choices and decision-making. (McKenzie, 1998)
    • Design assignments that ask students to integrate two or more specific ideas (i.e. explain how a certain local situation relates to a theory studied in the course). (Carroll & Appleton, 2001)
    • Design assignments that involve creativity, analysis, evaluation and synthesis. (Carroll & Appleton, 2001)
    • Ask students to assess or compare two ideas, outcomes or applications. (Carroll & Appleton, 2001)
    • Ask students to study a topic and present information leading to a decision, rather than just present information on a topic. (McKenzie, 1998)
    • Design assignments that ask students to explain why something didn’t happen, rather than why something did. (McKenzie, 1998)

Embeddedness

  • Assignments should arise from the specific conditions of the course as it is being offered by this instructor at this institution in this year. (See also the section on Course Design.)
  • This requires both the nurturing and the recognition of a course culture, which may be artificially created through the development of an idiolect, or by some sui generis medley of theoretical presuppositions, or through the cultivation of weird juxtapositions. It may also arise “organically” from the site-specific chemistry of course members.
  • Encourage (and make time for) TAs to contribute assignments directed to their own groups.  One option is to develop course essay and problem banks from which those grading the assignments can select on grounds of appropriateness to the concerns of the particular group.
  • Another aspect of embeddedness is in-class work, deriving immediately from the materials and discussions to hand.  This does not mean more exams.  Rather it means micro-essays (with grading allowances made for the grammatical and orthographic stress of writing at high speed), hastily improvised problem sets, brief reports—whatever can demonstrate the students’ absorption of the materials in a context not permitting borrowing from elsewhere.
  • Explicitly link course work and exams so that they crosscheck and reinforce each other. (Carroll & Appleton, 2001)
  • Evolve citation practices as a ‘class community’ to cover circumstances in the course. Some instructors ask students to cite lectures; others wish their lectures treated as ‘common knowledge’ and not cited. Discussion of these issues and class guidelines can be effective at integrating student’s writing with course material. The idea of citing lectures can be extended to the citation of ideas originally suggested by classmates. A requirement that class discussion be integrated into students’ writing, along with an expectation that such discussion be cited, makes it very difficult (and therefore expensive) for a professional ghostwriter to create a suitable essay.

Process

  • Focus on process not product—or perhaps both process and product.(Carroll & Appleton, 2001).
  • The most effective way of discouraging plagiarism in essays is the gradual development, through a series of observed stages, of the final product. (Ehrlich, 1998)  An essay that begins with a 200-word statement of project (graded and commented upon by the instructor) then moves through drafts (also graded with commentary) to a final essay or report is a huge challenge to the plagiarist. In this case, the instructor should be clear that a significant portion of the grade is derived from how well students deal with comments and suggestions.
  • It is important to note that the constant oversight necessary for process-centred evaluation is labour intensive.  One possible easing of this burden is peer evaluation at some stage(s) in the process.
  • Specific process-focused assignments might include:
    • Have students prepare an annotated bibliography.
    • Have students ask their classmates to read their paper for feedback. (Harris, 2001)
    • On the assignment due date, have students write an in-class, “meta-learning” essay about what they learned from the assignment. (Harris, 2001)

 

Preventing Plagiarism in Academic Essays

The best way to deal with plagiarism is to prevent it. An effective method for doing this comes from one of our most basic principles about academic writing: that it is a recursive process. In other words, essays are written in stages, and our minds are always going back and forth among these stages in the messy business of creating an essay.   If we simply follow through on the implications of this idea, we can cut down both the temptation and the opportunities to plagiarize.

The major steps in the writing of an academic essay are:

  1. Prewriting Stage: may include brainstorming, clustering, free-writing.
  2. Note-taking
  3. Outline
  4. First Draft
  5. Revisions

Ask students to hand in the various stages of the essay while they are working on it and comment on the work in progress. Then, simply look for some connection between the earlier stages of the essay and the finished product.  This will not only cut down on plagiarism, but helps students learn how to work through the process of writing.

Another option is to require students to turn in all of their rough work—notes, drafts etc.—with their final essay.

Students can also be reminded that no essay is complete unless they can come to the professor’s office and explain it—and that this is something you might ask them to do if you are concerned about the legitimacy of their paper.