Friday, July 22, 2011

Don’t police plagiarism! Instead design assignments that cannot be plagiarized.

Who says Facebook is a useless waste of time? This morning on my ride to work I was checking my Facebook on my iPhone (don’t worry - I was not driving!). I saw a post by a friend of mine on my news feed who was sharing a post by a friend of his entitled “NYU Prof Vows Never to Probe Cheating Again – and Faces a Backlash.” The link brought me to the article from the Chronicle of Higher Education that instantly riveted me to its text. It is a fantastic story of the real life struggles of university teachers in the war against plagiarism. You just have to read it before you continue on with this post. So take a break right now, go read that article and then come back here.

OK – so now that you’ve read the article I hope you agree with me that it is definitely interesting. What intrigues me about it is the last paragraph that provides some options on a different approach: designing assignments that cannot be plagiarized. Realistically, I think it is difficult to design assignments that are completely void of any risk of plagiarism; however, assignments can be designed that minimize the risk considerably (i.e. they provide disincentives to plagiarism). I’ve got a few ideas (most are applicable to the online classroom as well as the face-to-face classroom) and many of them involve student-to-student interaction, which is a bonus to those instructors that are seeking to make their courses more interactive:
  1. Group work. In my experience as a student, instructor and instructional designer, group work places additional pressures on students to avoid plagiarism. It is probably because the risk is greater. Should plagiarism be detected then the entire group risks sharing the same consequence. By using this student-to-student collaborative approach you also put additional responsibilities on students to develop their intra-group communication and teamwork skills. Skills that are required in every workplace! Bonus!

  2. Discussion. When it comes to expressing one’s idea in a discussion forum posting online that might be about 100-250 words in length or in a structured discussion in the face-to-face classroom, plagiaristic behaviours do not seem to immediately rise to the surface in most students. Most students can manage well in this form of cooperative student-to-student participatory activity. Therefore, designing a component of your assessment scheme devoted to discussion will be wise choice.

  3. Presentations. Once a students, has the additional pressure of having to share their ideas to the class in public, then the desires to plagiarize the work may be quenched to some degree. Public display is the driving factor here. Combine this presentation approach with the group work approach and then there could be a synergistic effect to the plagiarism disincentive.

  4. Peer review. In some courses it is difficult to avoid having a term paper in the assessment scheme – so plagiarism can become attractive to students in this scenario. So what strategy can be employed to discourage plagiarism in this setting? I can think of two ideas. The first is to have the first draft of the paper be subjected to peer review. Build into your assessment scheme that each student will select one first draft from a classmate and perform a critique on it. Give them a structure and a rubric for their critical feedback. Have items on the critique rubric represent anti-plagiaristic characteristics such as proper citation format, original work, consistency in voice and style across the paper. Of course, associate grades with this critique exercise so that people have an incentive to do a good job. There’s a chance that this peer feedback could set the student on the right track early in the process should any weaknesses be present. 2) Require that the students post the first draft, the associated critique and then the final paper electronically into an online discussion forum for all class members to see. This public display of one’s work at every stage adds the disincentive to plagiarize because the term paper may be exposed to more eyes than simply the instructor’s.

  5. Retain and display past student work for future classes in the form of a public wiki. Frame the term paper assignment in the context of building a repository of knowledge in the field to be shared publicly with the world using a wiki. Each time the course is taught the wiki expands with new student-generated work. The fact that the student term paper will be shared with people outside the classroom may provide additional disincentive to plagiarize.

  6. Have student’s build/create something that isn’t a term paper. In physics class have them make a rubber band racecar, test it, calibrate it, document the entire process and then have them race it against classmates at the end of the semester. In biology class, have go out into nature and photograph something themselves, repeatedly over time so as to observe developmental changes, and have them document their findings. In math class, have them go out in the world and collect real life data to use in the assignments. In English class, have them write original short stories and then practice their literary criticism skills by formally commenting on the original work of one of their peers. In history or journalism class, have them go out and interview people as sources for the material in their papers. In any class, have them make a movie or a digital story. By creating something they are working on something new - something different. It is more difficult to plagiarize when the subject matter is ‘new and different’. For most students, it will be more fun to unleash their creativity on the subject then to invest hours trying to devise plagiarisms schemes that will result in an equally creative product.

There are many more ways to design assignments to include disincentives to plagiarism. If you have a good idea, please share it with us below as a comment.

Bonus Tip: Don't do away with proctored final exams. There are already well-established plagiarism protections in these environments. Just avoid making exams worth 60% of the final grade, etc. The pressure to score well on such a high stake assessment can be crushing for many students.


Marc Imbeault said...

Excellent post Eric, si tu es d'accord je vais le diffuser aux professeurs du CMR Saint-Jean qui "combattent" le plagiat eux-aussi et qui pourraient s'inspirer de ton article et de celui du NYT pour créer des travaux qui ne donnent pas envie de plagier!

Eric Tremblay said...

Bien oui! Tu peut toujours partager l'information sur mon blog.