In a previous blog post, I made a brief case for not using plagiarism detection software. I also argued that we could partially resolve some of our concerns about plagiarism by designing writing assignments that offer authentic writing challenges related to our fields of study.
In this blog, I want to go one step further and suggest that we can design writing assignments and processes that privilege student learning first, with the happy side-effect of also preventing plagiarism! We can even do so in ways that meaningfully integrate writing into your current courses without significant displacement of other content, or without over-taxing your already over-taxed time and energy.
Design a Process that is Hard to Fake
Copy and pasting from Google or an article isn’t the real plagiarism problem we face. The real issue is the essay mill industry that is churning out essays for students to purchase and pass off as their own (something plagiarism detection software can’t help us with, by the way). That industry flourishes because finalized writing is easy to fake.
The more generic or stock the assignment, the easier it is to fake. Likewise, the less involved the composing process is, the easier the final draft is to fake. It is difficult to reverse-engineer a purchased essay so that it looks like it went through a specific series of revisions. For instance, you can make the “Literature Review” and the “Discussion” section of a report due as separate assignments; you could have the “Methodology” section be composed alongside a series of focused activities. You can even set the expectation that students do revisions between those drafts and the final and write a reflection explaining how and why the text has changed as they worked on it.
A process-based approach also opens the opportunity to address accidental plagiarism as a moment of learning. If I see a student has dropped in a quote without attribution and we are still at the rough draft stage, it is a good point to explain both the ethics and the written conventions of attribution.
What if I Don’t Have Time to “Teach Writing”?
One counterpoint I have particular sympathy for is “I don’t have time or space in my curriculum to teach writing.” I get it. As a writing teacher, I know how labor-intensive a process-based pedagogy can be. Time and labor are precious resources to academics of all ranks.
However, keep in mind that teaching writing is teaching how to think in your field. It works best alongside the intellectual process of engaging work in your field, not as a final product at the end. If you are teaching students how to take fields notes to integrate into a larger research project, you are teaching writing. If you’re teaching students how to analyze the sections of a lab report, you are teaching writing.
Additionally, consider the following time-saving teaching practices:
Rubrics as Reflection Tools:
Teachers often present rubrics to students as assessment tools—”these are the criteria by which you will be judged.” Personally, I love rubrics and find them invaluable to teaching writing. But we miss a real opportunity when students only see them as the medium through which a grade arrives in their inbox.
A good rubric is primarily a reflection tool. Alternately, a bad rubric assigns points only to formal characteristics of the text–commas, paragraph length, thesis statement, citations, etc.— that don’t help writers learn how to write.
Instead, you can design your rubrics to name the several rhetorical goals or written conventions of a text—synthesizing research, integrating evidence, analyzing data, considering audience expectations, etc. Then the evaluative criteria in your rubric become points of reflection as students compose. Midway through a process, you can ask students to use a well-designed rubric to self-assess their own writing and identify specific places for revision.
You can also design short in-class or online modules around those specific elements of the rubric. We can even assign reflective writing, in advance of a deadline, that asks students to use our rubrics to self-assess a draft and locate specific areas for revision.
Sometimes the best advice comes from others doing similar work. Though detailed written or recorded feedback on student writing is of inestimable value to student writers, there are ways to center lessons on written conventions specific to your field.
One thing you might do is a model in class and discuss some of the written conventions the model is doing well; then have students work in groups to offer feedback on the use of those conventions. For instance, if there are specific conventions for writing methodology sections in your field, you can (a) assign a draft of just that session to be due on a certain date; (b) in class, point out some of the rhetorical purposes of that section that are specific to your field; (c) outline some of those conventions together; (d) briefly discuss why those conventions exist, and then (e) ask students to read each other’s drafts and give feedback along those lines.
Design Mini-Lessons on Writing
You don’t have to set aside entire class meetings to teach writing effectively.
When I am reading drafts of student writing, I often notice that multiple people are making the same missteps. In those cases, I stop commenting on it. You can really exhaust yourself by trying to give everyone the same feedback (or by playing copyeditor instead of guide).
In those cases, I tell myself: “That’s a lesson.” If you notice that a majority of students are placing a period in the wrong place in APA citations, then take 5 minutes to point it out, have them open their drafts, and look for the issue; if you notice that many students are engaging audiences in ways that would be considered unprofessional by peers in your field, design a short activity to model why that convention exists, what it looks like, then have them open their drafts (or even share drafts with each other) to look for it.
If you feel like your in-class time is so jam-packed you can’t set aside a few moments to discuss writing, then also consider designing online modules that ask students to complete distinct process steps related to the revisions you would like to see in their writing. For instance, consider creating a homework module with a short video explaining the rhetorical goals of the section that needs work, design one or two process activities that ask students to complete distinct process steps related to the revisions you would like to see, and even require a short reflection so that you can respond to questions or confusions (especially if you don’t have the capacity to respond to each draft individually).
Anti-Plagiarism Strategies for Research Papers (2020) Rober Harris, VirtualSalt – http://www.virtualsalt.com/anti-plagiarism-strategies-for-research-papers/
Rubrics (nd.) Berkeley Center for Teaching & Learning – https://teaching.berkeley.edu/resources/improve/evaluate-course-level-learning/rubrics
Think back to a piece of writing you produced that makes you proud. It could be an academic article, a grant proposal, a job application. I imagine it makes you proud because it was an experience that involved hard, engaged work. I bet it also gives you a strong sense of confidence in your ideas and professional identity.
I also bet you stole it.
Let those words linger a minute. Of course, I bet you didn’t steal it. But imagine that, when you submitted that piece of writing, someone said that you did.
Why You Shouldn’t Use Plagiarism Detection Software
I get the case for using plagiarism detection software. The argument typically goes: plagiarism threatens the value we place on critical thinking and undermines the reputation of an institution. I don’t take exception with much in that argument, except that it has at its core a big assumption: students are cheaters.
Scholars in my field of Rhetoric and Writing often condemn the use of plagiarism detection software. The Composition Program at the University of Louisville offers a detailed case for why, and I would encourage you to read it. Here, I would like to emphasize two points:
- Plagiarism detection software damages the student/teacher relationship from the outset.
If you felt defensive at my earlier suggestion that you stole your writing, imagine how your students feel (regularly) when they see plagiarism software statements on our syllabi. Such statements are not challenges to innovate, to create, to synthesize, to critique and advance; they aren’t invitations to explore the course content in ways that matter to them. Instead, they say “Writing is a proving ground, like a test, and you better get it right.” How we talk about plagiarism matters.
I mean, look at the names for some of these services: TurnitIn (an emphatic command), Safe Assign (your writing is “unsafe” and we must purge it before acceptance), and Ouriginal (you must generate original ideas that humanity has never considered before, that critical thinking is always revealed in totally novel expression). It is difficult to establish meaningful student/teacher relationships if they feel we look at them this way, and I don’t think we want our institution to have the reputation of seeing students these ways.
- The use of plagiarism detection software is ethically dubious.
Not only are students often forced to submit their own intellectual work to a privately-owned database, but essay mills use such services to guarantee that the writing they sell customers will pass a detection test. That means that professors across the country are essentially underwriting plagiarism by helping to create a comprehensive database that helps essay mills do it better. In an effort to alleviate our concerns about plagiarism in the present, we may be making the entire activity harder to detect (I have no evidence that is the case with Ouriginal, though the service does allow individual users to set up paid accounts).
If the two propositions above are so, then our use of these services are not ethically neutral.
I will go into more detail about pedagogical alternatives in another blog post, but let’s start with re-thinking our approach to student writing.
Offer Authentic Rhetorical Challenges
Rhetoric is thinking artfully (making intentional decisions) and ethically (considering the consequences of our language use on real audiences) about our communication. Our students will never face generic writing situations beyond the classroom. Writing is used to solve problems, to convey critical information, and to develop innovative ideas. When we think of student writing as proving grounds, we offer generic assignments that I would argue are a-rhetorical. Students aren’t making intentional decisions as writers, and they aren’t thinking about the impact of their words for real audiences—they are just trying to get the right answer.
In their 1991 book, Situated Learning, Lave and Wenger forward the idea of “legitimate peripheral participation.” They developed the concept through observing various traditional apprenticeship practices. For instance, the shoemaker’s apprentice doesn’t start out on day one cutting leather; instead, they may sweep around the shop and do other tasks that are not shoe-making, but they do complete tasks that legitimately engage the situation in which shoes are made. Over time, through exposure and guidance, they learn more about the direct act of production.
Our students would benefit if we thought of our writing assignments as apprenticeship. Students can’t write SOAP notes without actual clients to work with, but how can you create scenarios that model the rhetorical challenge in those situations? Students may not yet be able to offer a full dietary plan to a patient, but can they use writing to research the processes they should use in doing so? Students can’t write a police report, but what intellectual inquiry could you design to have them analyze and understand the written conventions of such documents?
Here’s the point: if we offer authentic rhetorical tasks for our students, they will be more engaged in their learning and it will be harder to plagiarize. It is difficult to get an essay mill to write something that engages a hyper-local problem, or that practices specific written conventions of professional genres.
In thinking of student writing as apprenticeship, we resist plagiarism and begin to respect our students’ writing as legitimate inquiry—as a real part of the work in our fields.
Policy Against the Use of Plagiarism Detection Software (2009) University of Louisville Department of English – https://louisville.edu/english/composition/policy-against-the-use-of-plagiarism-detection-software.html
Playing with Plagiarism: Remixing What Sticks (2014) Dustin Edwards, Harlot of the Hearts – http://harlotofthearts.org/index.php/harlot/article/view/205/143http://harlotofthearts.org/index.php/harlot/article/view/205/143
A Final Nail in the Coffin for Turnitin? (2019). Inside Higher Education – https://www.insidehighered.com/blo.gs/just-visiting/final-nail-coffin-turnitin