Designing Activities and Assignments to Discourage Plagiarism

Alice J. Robison, Bonnie K. Smith,
Writing Across the Curriculum

Plagiarism is a serious topic raised frequently when we talk about responding to student writing, and it makes sense that we should want to talk about plagiarism in the context of evaluating and responding to student writing because it is at that moment—after the fact—that we discover that plagiarism or cheating has occurred. The University has provided instructors with a series of strategies for dealing with plagiarism. Thankfully, serious plagiarizers are the exception to the rule in most of our classrooms.

But despite warnings and the threat of punishment, plagiarism does occur, and with increasing frequency. The Council of Writing Program Administrators notes that “with the advent of the Internet and easy access to almost limitless written material on every conceivable topic, suspicion of student plagiarism has begun to affect teachers at all levels, at times diverting them from the work of developing students’ writing, reading, and critical thinking abilities.” 1 So, what can writing instructors do to stop plagiarism before it happens? What strategies are available to instructors as they seek to prevent students from committing the act in the first place? Teaching our students about proper use of sources and citation methods is an important part of discouraging plagiarism, and defining, discussing, and teaching proper use of sources and citation methods is a useful tactic. Experienced instructors concur that it is important to include information on plagiarism in their syllabi, perhaps confirming class discussions with “academic honesty contracts” or institutional “honor codes.”

In addition to these explicit efforts to discourage plagiarism, instructors can also think carefully about course and assignment design. As Sally Cole and Elizabeth Kiss (2000) point out in their article, “What Can We Do About Student Cheating,” “Students are most likely to cheat when they think their assignments are pointless, and least likely to cheat when they admire and respect their teachers and are excited about what they are learning.”

Options for Preventing Plagiarism

Although we may not realize it, the basic requirements for Comm-B and Writing-Intensive courses at UW include many pedagogically sound tactics for teaching writing—activities that can help discourage plagiarism. These guidelines ask instructors to:

  • Develop discipline-specific writing activities that encourage students to learn and understand the discourse of a field of study
  • Emphasize revision as a routine process for writing
  • Conduct regular, one-on-one, in-depth conferences with students about their writing
  • Devote class time to preparing students to complete writing assignments
  • Implement regular, informal, ungraded writing tasks
  • Keep class sizes small
  • Ask students to provide regular feedback on their experiences with the course.

Additionally, here are some suggestions for activities that may help you and your students avoid problems, all of which are most effective at the beginning of a course:

  • Share the University’s definition of misconduct with your students.
  • Share examples of misconduct. For example, show your students an acceptable paraphrase juxtaposed with an unacceptable paraphrase.
  • Talk regularly with all of your students about their papers in progress and their evolving ideas for their papers. Regular dialogue with your students not only helps students improve their thinking and writing but also discourages plagiarism.
  • Remind your students about documenting sources. And ask them what they already know about documentation, so you can build from their existing experience.
  • Decide what violating the rules means in your class. If your course or department does not already bind your course to a specific academic honesty policy, make a policy, communicate that policy to your students, and stick to it.
  • Many instructors articulate their own or their department’s academic honesty policies in contract form and have their students sign the contracts at the beginning of the semester. Such a contract serves multiple purposes: it teaches students about their responsibilities as writers, alerts students that you care about academic honesty, discourages students from plagiarizing, and may help you if you have to deal with a plagiarism case.

The following is an example of an academic honesty contract used in my English 100 course.

Academic Honesty Contract

One of the fundamental principles of this university is that “academic honesty and integrity are fundamental to the mission of higher education and of the University of Wisconsin system” (Wisconsin Administrative Code 14.01). While what constitutes in-class cheating (copying the work of others, unauthorized use of prepared notes, etc.) is often obvious to students, plagiarism merits further elaboration.

Plagiarism is…

×        Using someone else’s words or ideas without proper documentation.

×        Copying some portion of your text from another source without proper acknowledgement of indebtedness.

×        Borrowing another person’s specific ideas without documenting their source.

×        Having another person correct or revise your work. This differs from getting feedback from a writing group, or from an individual, which you then attempt to implement.

×        Turning in a paper written by another person, from an essay “service,” or from a website (including reproductions of such essays or papers).

In addition to the instruction you have received in this course, writing handbooks are excellent sources for learning how to avoid plagiarism. The writing center has an online handbook that can be accessed at Click on “Writer’s Handbook.” And of course, you may always talk with me if you have any questions about plagiarism.


Anyone who plagiarizes in this class will be reported to the Director of Composition and earn a failing grade in the course. Further penalties may include suspension or expulsion from the University.

Signing below indicates:

×        I understand what plagiarism is,

×        I will ask my instructor if I have questions regarding plagiarism,

×        I understand my responsibilities regarding this matter, and

×        I agree to abide by the above consequences should I intentionally plagiarize.

_______________________ (student) _________ (date)          __________________________ (instructor) ________ (date)


Designing Assignments to Discourage Plagiarism

Beyond these best practices for teaching writing are several best practices for preventing plagiarism in the writing classroom. In a statement on plagiarism the Council on Writing Program Administrators recommends that instructors improve the design and sequence of assignments, noting that there are things we can do as instructors to design our courses so as not to invite plagiarism:

  1. Tailor assignments carefully to the content of your course. One of the riskiest things to do is to give generic assignments not tailored to the course. Offering students concrete and specific questions that are situated in the course’s content and learning goals can discourage infinite choice while helping students to understand your expectations. If you provide students with detailed paths of inquiry that are grounded in the subject matter and class activities, you’ll discourage broad, off-topic responses.
  2. Design assignments that require students to explore a subject in depth. Longer writing assignments that are sequenced (see section on sequencing at the front of this sourcebook)—i.e., “broken up” into smaller, incremental writing tasks—can significantly reduce the opportunity for plagiarism and allow students to think frequently and regularly about the course content and ultimately produce better papers. Activities like student peer review, summarizing sources, and short, sentence- or paragraph-length informal writing assignments as part of a longer, more formal assignment, require students to take ownership over their individual writing processes.
  3. Work with students to help select possible topics early. Soliciting questions about and criticisms of course material early on in the writing process can help the student begin to articulate a possible writing project. Some ideas include:
    1. Ask students to keep an ongoing, consistently revised list of readings and activities that they’ve enjoyed in the course, bringing the list to conferences for further discussion.
    2. If planning on a term project or paper, ask students to commit early to a broad topic. Then, provide students with due dates for annotated bibliographies, research questions, oral presentations, thesis statements, outlines, beginning paragraphs, etc. Students can (and should) mold their topics as they go, asking and answering questions as they complete the steps of the project.
    3. Students often report that the one-on-one time they spend with instructors is some of the most helpful and valuable learning they experience. Encourage students to bring their ongoing research to your office hours or to the Writing Center for help discussing how to narrow a topic. Time spent in conference discussing the research a student has already performed can help the student commit to a specific research question or topic that you’ve developed together.
  4. Develop and sequence assignment schedules for students that allow them time to explore as they work toward defined topics. Allowing space and time for students to master each challenge as they build toward a larger assignment builds confidence in students’ ability to truly learn and understand the material assigned to them. Students are much less likely to cheat if they feel confident in their abilities to master the material on their own. For example, if you regularly assign response papers in your class, think about asking students to first write summaries of the text they’ve been asked to respond to. Then, encourage them to conduct a peer review of those summaries online or outside of class. They’ll quickly find out from each other whether they’ve understood the text, and you’ll spend a lot less time grading summaries instead of critical analyses.
  5. Coach students through each step of the research process. Let students know that you understand how difficult the writing process can be, and then guide them through it. Many experienced instructors create and distribute handouts on how to find a research question, how to create and sustain a thesis, or how to conduct library research. These guides, written by you, are a wonderful teaching tool. In fact, we’ve included some excellent examples in this sourcebook. See the section on “Coaching Students to Succeed.”
  6. Make the research process, and technology used for it, visible. The idea here is to make research public. In other words, show students how you found and decided on the readings for the course. Offer up ideas for databases, search terms, websites, and clearinghouses that they can use in their information-gathering activities.
  7. Develop evaluation criteria that require students to address the particular questions in your assignment so that a “borrowed” or generic paper—no matter how professional—won’t be satisfactory. Sharing your evaluation criteria will communicate to students at the start that you’re holding them accountable for answering specific questions.

Sample Assignments

Though no assignment can be absolutely plagiarism-proof, some assignments are so heavily situated in the context of a course that they truly can make plagiarism less likely. While these assignments are creatively designed, they also require creative responses—not an easy task! Most important, they are designed in such a way that the opportunity for plagiarism or cheating is virtually eliminated, therefore boosting the chances that students will go to their instructors for help (rather than the Internet or a paper file).

From Professor Virginia Sapiro’s Women’s Studies 102 course, this short, informal assignment asks students to adopt a different point of view in order to gain a critical understanding of information sources. As Martians just-arrived on Earth, students analyze current communications media over a two-week time period—an assignment so particular to time and place that it would be extremely difficult to plagiarize.

Martian Media Watch
You are a Martian who has just arrived on Earth and, because you are an extremely intelligent being, you pick up a complete command of English in no time. You understand from the earthlings you encounter that the mass media of communication are used regularly on earth to keep people informed of all the important things that are happening. Pick one news medium and follow it carefully for at least two weeks. You may pick one daily newspaper to read every day, or watch television news every day (including some “news analysis” shows) or read a selection of news magazines. You may pick a limited number of news sites on the internet. What do you learn about gender from these media? What, especially, do you learn about women? In the course of your discussion, pay attention to the “quality” and intended audience of your chosen medium (for example, is this an elite, national newspaper such as the New York Times?) Consider: is the sampling and approach to the news you found the only possible way that news source could have dealt with gender issues at that time? How would you explain why the news was structured as it was in your source(s)? Be sure to integrate your observations into the arguments and observations of the research literature on the mass media.

In a History of the American West seminar, Professor Susan Johnson asks students to write a brief review of the first four books they read together as a class, drawing from the discussion that takes place during those first few weeks of the semester. The papers that result are therefore closely tied to class discussion as students address specific questions that a generic paper won’t likely answer.

Review Essay
Write a formal 3-4 page paper that examines and evaluates ideas about “the West” and “the frontier” in the first four books we’ve read collectively (Limerick, Taylor, White, and Cronon). You do not need to concentrate equally on each of these books. And you do not need to limit yourself to a literal reading of what these authors say about the actual terms “the West” and/or “the frontier” (indeed, only two of the authors engage in a wide-ranging discussion of the terms). Instead, you need to make a coherent argument about the intellectual conception of the West or the frontier that emerges from your reading of these four books. Is “the West” a meaningful concept that helps us to understand the historical situations described and analyzed in these books? Is “the frontier”? …These are among the kinds of questions you may want to answer in your paper. Obviously, you can’t answer all of them, and you may have questions other than these that you wish to raise. But your paper should pose a historical question and then answer it relying on the readings we’ve done in common so far.

Rob Emmett teaches an introductory English composition course on argument and ecocriticism. A primary goal of Emmett’s is to help students understand the ways that ecocritics “think and write about non-textual mediations of our environment” so that students can understand argument as it takes shape outside of the readings they do for the course. By sequencing the assignment into small, incremental steps and by asking students to conduct original research in a localized space (the Map Library), Emmett makes it difficult for students to fabricate their research.

Essay: Ecocriticism of Visual Arguments
Find at least three maps of a single geographical area (e.g., the city limits of Chicago, the state of Nebraska, or Togo) from three different historical moments (i.e., each should be at least 50 years apart). Analyze the visual arguments made by these maps and consider how and why this representation changed over time. You will need to compare and contrast these images. Your thesis for this option should evaluate these historical changes in representation and possibly predict what a future map of this area will look like based on current trends in land-use or social structure. (For example, the map covering San Diego, California and Tijuana, Mexico could be redrawn in sixty years as one city-state, “Nuevo California.”) What is included and excluded from the maps at different times? Whose purposes do these exclusions or inclusions serve? Do later additions to the map represent progress? How or why? Include facsimiles of the images in your final portfolio. In addition, it is vital that you incorporate what you have learned in our study of maps and other visual representations of space, especially the arguments made in the oral debate project (forthcoming).

How does UW define plagiarism?

Plagiarism at UW falls under the umbrella of “academic misconduct.” According to chapter 14 of the University of Wisconsin System Administrative code, “Academic Misconduct Subject to Disciplinary Action; (I) Academic misconduct is an act in which a student:

  1. seeks to claim credit for the work or efforts of another without authorization or citation;
  2. uses unauthorized materials or fabricated data in any academic exercise;
  3. forges or falsifies academic documents or records
  4. intentionally impedes or damages the academic work of others;
  5. engages in conduct aimed at making false representation of a student’s academic performance;
  6. assists other students in any of these acts.” (UWS 14.03)

For further information about procedures and penalties imposed on students, instructors should be sure to visit the Dean of Students Office website at

What do I do if I suspect a student has committed an act of academic misconduct?

The first thing you should do is carefully read the material from the Dean of Students. Then, we’d recommend you talk with experienced colleagues who’ve handled plagiarism cases before—especially directors of a course. Then, according to the University’s policies, you should set up an informal meeting with the student during which you share your concerns. But before you meet with a student, you need to have a clear goal and plan for what you want to accomplish during the course of the meeting. You should also imagine how the student might respond to your concerns; some students might get angry or cry in such a meeting, and others might quietly agree that they’ve handled the assignment inappropriately. Be prepared for various reactions.

In addition to consulting the university guidelines, you may wish to seek the advice of a colleague or your course coordinator. Additionally, you might consider having a colleague present at the initial meeting with the student. Use the informal meeting as an opportunity to explain your view of the problem. Then, be sure to listen and allow the student an opportunity to respond to your concern.


1 “Defining and Avoiding Plagiarism: The WPA Statement on Best Practices.”