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