How does your school handle allegations of plagiarism? Image courtesy of Flickr user Hazel Owen. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.This week, the Chronicle published an article by an English professor on how he handles plagiarism in his classes. None of the strategies are groundbreaking–he requires multiple drafts of papers so he sees progress, addresses plagiarism on the first day of class and in his syllabus, and tries to craft assignments which are difficult to cheat on (such as essays on more obscure texts). 

The author has also altered his outlook on cheating as a systematic problem: though he has students who cheat, the author tries not to punish those who are honest in his attempt to find the plagiarists, and he doesn’t stress unduly about plagiarist he did not catch. He does not use anti-plagiarism software, because he feels it makes students all feel like cheaters, and it isn’t particularly effective.

There’s a lot of good points in the article, but the one that I want to talk about here is the idea of crafting assignments that cannot be cheated on or plagiarized. Obviously, students shouldn’t cheat–it’s unfair for everyone else involved, and dishonest and annoying. And here we are making a distinction between unintentional plagiarists (for whom there needs to be a better-written and better-explained honor code than currently exists at most institutions) and intentional ones (cheaters). That being said, in my experience, the assignments that are potentially the easiest to cheat on are also those that require the least amount of critical thinking fromt the student. The assignments exist in the worst case in order to provide busywork, and in the best case as an unfortunately easy-to-game way for professors to teach more students at any one time than can be given in-depth assignments.

Assignments which require demonstrated critical thinking, long-term work (like multiple drafts), and independent analysis (like essay exams) are the hardest to cheat on or plagiarize without a large monetary investment. Those are also the assignments that are the hardest for professors teaching large lecture sections to craft because of the amount of time it takes to grade. I know personally that as soon as I moved from a school where classes averaged about 20 people to a summer class of 50, I was suddenly presented with many more multiple choice questions, and those lend themselves to cheating far more than free response does. Though students shouldn’t cheat regardless of class size, it does seem like institutions that are focused on cramming as many students into a room as possible are going to have worse problems with cheating and plagiarism because the exams and assignments that work in those settings are the easiest for students to cheat on.

Plagiarism is a frustrating problem in part because it has roots in many places: badly-written honor codes, a K-12 system that doesn’t teach citation skills well, and courses structured to make cheating easy for those who are so inclined–in addition to some people just wanting to cheat. However, a reasonable approach that doesn’t treat all students like cheaters has perhaps been left behind in an anti-plagiarism fervor, and the author’s article presents a refreshing take on the problem.

Do you have any experiences with well- or poorly-applied institutional plagarism policies? Let us know in the comments!