Encouraging Originality Online: Lessons in Academic Integrity from the Virtual Classroom

Professor Jennifer Gipson (Literature in Translation 360)

Plagiarism is hardly particular to the online classes. However, virtual learning environments force instructors to think differently about academic integrity, ultimately yielding lessons that both teachers and students can apply in face-to-face or online settings. The approaches here are drawn from my redesign of the writing portion of my department’s online course, Literature in Translation 360: Literature of the French and Italian Renaissance, in which students write weekly short essays based on close readings of texts, not research. In training new TAs, I have begun to conceptualize academic integrity into three areas: educating students about academic integrity, preventing plagiarism, and detecting plagiarism. Though I focus here on encouraging originality and preventing plagiarism, these three categories necessarily overlap (e.g., education is prevention and detection can open doors for education).


  • Be transparent about policies and detection practices. Let students know that you are a smart searcher and know how to clear browsing histories, cookies, etc. Google your own prompts—not just your students’ answers.  
  • Be aware of consequences of academic dishonesty on the university level and make sure that students realize how bad choices now and can impact their future.
  • Listen to students and understand their thinking, especially regarding online behavior. What do students think about intellectual property or academic integrity, especially online? The answers might surprise many instructors. In addition to policy statements, integrate student voices with permission. For example, a former student offered this advice: “Not turning an essay in is better than choosing to cheat. Learn from your pitfalls and choose to start fresh with the next unit. How you present yourself as a college student affects not only your relationship with fellow students and professors, but for future opportunities in your life.”
  • Link education about academic integrity to assessments. Strategically design the workflow so that students are reminded of policy as they access a writing prompt or submit an essay. In the style of “End User License Agreements” required to install software, students could be asked to acknowledge course policies before accessing a writing prompt. In an online format, this acknowledgement can be set a condition of viewing the essay prompt, thereby directing linking plagiarism policies and the assessment that they are about to complete.
  • Reduce the panic that can lead to bad choices, or, to quote with permission from former student, the “‘itch’ to Internet search in order to produce an acceptable essay.” Allow a “safety net” so that students are only required to complete say, 12 out of 14 essays and remind students to save their “free” essays for when they really need them. This “safety net” also helps detection of plagiarism by minimizing or eliminating extension requests, thereby ensuring that all essays are turned in at the same time so that they can be manually checked for matches in a multi-instructor high-enrollment course without plagiarism detection software.
  • Use creative writing prompts to make originality fun, engaging, thought-provoking, and….hard to google or find on Wikipedia!!! Varying perspective, audience, and genre encourages students to think deeply about the material and how they use it. Writing a “rejection letter” from the perspective of a historical figure, for example, require the student, to cite the text to support an assertion. Likewise, “application essays” also make a case: an author time-traveling from the Renaissance who applies to speak at a symposium called “Is there Poetry after Petrarch?” has a point to prove.  Since students may have trouble “adopting” a new persona for writing, it can be helpful to give them an opening sentence to finish, for example “People say that my work is like Petrarch’s, but….” Other genres include dialogues, acceptance speeches, film proposals, or letters. For example, in spring 2014, my prompt tapped into current events with a letter written from the perspective to a fictional character to a campus official:

“He [Gargantua] was in Paris, studying hard both at humane letters and athletically” (Rabelais, ch. 28 of Gargantua).  Imagine that you are Gargantua’s teacher, Powerbrain, time traveling from the Renaissance. You pick up a newspaper with a headline about Badgers basketball and the final four. This inspires you to write a letter to the UW basketball coach OR the Chancellor (your choice). The goal is to explain your vision (writing from Powerbrain’s viewpoint) of a humanist education, including, as relevant, the place of physical recreation. Base your answer on a careful reading of 23, “How Gargantua was so well taught by Powerbrain that he never wasted a single hour of the day.” Cite Gargantua as a positive or negative example, quoting at least one other chapter of Rabelais’ work to support your argument.


  • Rethink the essay. The online learning environment suggests ways that writing assignments might look different—and how collaborative work can encourage individual writing and thinking. It would, after all, be hard to blatantly plagiarize a fellow student in a discussion forum! Likewise, the discussion forum provides an audience for student writing, outside of the instructor. Students benefit from peer feedback and, all students benefit from instructor comments, realizing an efficiency in instructor time. For example, the following discussion prompt immediately engaged students, who wrote convincing posts and debated how “hashtags” change the meaning of tweets themselves:

In his History of a Voyage to the Land of Brazil, Léry devotes most of Chapter VI to the conflict between the Calvinists and Villegagnon. At the end of the chapter he reports on a debate dividing the Calvinist community itself. Imagine that you are Léry, time travelling from the Renaissance. You want to write a “tweet” (a message sent on Twitter, a social networking platform that limits posts to 140 characters) that explains what this debate was about and why it was important. POST 1) Your 140 character statement. This is a time it is okay not to use good academic prose. 2) Then, write a formal justification of and reflection on your tweet, including quotes from the text. Why did you choose the words you did? Did you discover anything about the unit—or about concise writing? REPLY 3) You will not be able to view your classmates’ posts until you have posted one message. After you post, return to the discussion forum at least twice comment on classmates’ choices.  Did they miss something important? Think of something that you did not? Interpret the text differently?