Tips on Assignment Writing

Recent Research on Assignment Writing and Plagiarism

DeCoster, Brendan. “Back to Reality: Writing Assignments, Hyperreality, and the ‘Problem of Plagiarism.'” ICAI Blog (7 Jan 2020).

Plagiarism-PROOF Assignments?

People often ask how to write plagiarism-PROOF assignments. Sadly, there is NO SUCH THING. Students who intend to cheat will find a way, despite our best efforts.

However, there is good news: most students don’t intend to cheat.

Engaging teaching, supportive teaching, and plagiarism-aware assignments DO help to curb unintentional plagiarism.

Plagiarism-Aware Assignment Tips

  • Avoid traditional or often-used assignments
    • develop assignments that incorporate class readings or class discussions
    • develop assignments that build from work done in class (and have students do parts of the process, like prewriting or drafting parts of the assignment, in class)
    • develop assignments that include recent sources or that build from current events
    • develop assignments that connect class discussion, current events, and a student’s own hobbies, interests, or major/career path
    • develop assignments that ask students to use canned sources (ones you give them) in conjunction with sources they locate for themselves
  • Find ways to localize or personalize assignments
    • include interviews of local people (relevant to your course or to student interest)
    • ask students to find a local angle or personal angle to a larger or more general topic (for instance, experiences at the Rec Center as a way to explore a larger health/fitness issue; or, a personal experience with illness or a disease as a way to explore charitable giving or medical advances or the like)
  • Consider assigning projects that build throughout the semester (for instance, an early paper feeds into a second assignment feeds into a final project that develops organically as students learn and become engaged in the topic)
  • Offer feedback throughout the writing or project process, so that the final submission isn’t your first encounter with the student’s topic or writing (and offer feedback along the way: for instance, feedback on the research question, ideas about potential sources, feedback on drafts of parts of the assignment)
  • Consider assigning multimedia or multimodal projects (that include, for instance, development of a Web site with links to student writing or that include visual texts like photos or art or that include student-made videos)
  • Consider assigning different genres (a letter to the editor, a business memo, a report with executive summary, a graphic text or cartoon) as part of an assignment
  • Consider developing experiential-learning opportunities in which students are asked to apply their learning to a real-life situation (for instance, creating a presentation for a business or developing a plan for a client)
  • Incorporate a reflective element into the assignment, where students explain the choices or decisions they made as they completed the assignment
  • SHOW students HOW to do the assignment: often they don’t know how to cite or document sources or do the various elements of a written project in your field, and showing them how to do that sometimes relieves a pressure that might lead to cheating.

Some Resources on Plagiarism-Aware Assignment Development

Some Advice on Assignment Writing in General; or, How NOT to Write the Assignment from Hell

This set of tips was assembled from notes taken during Muriel Harris’s Pearson Headwinds webinar entitled “How NOT to Write the Assignment from Hell,” April 2010. 

  • Think carefully about the assignment: What is its purpose? What are your goals for your students in having them write it? Is that clear to them?
  • What are your students’ goals for your class? Most want to learn practical skills. How do your assignment sheet and teaching of this unit address this expectation?
  • Understand your audience: Who are your students? What is their background?
  • Students look for clues about what good writing is. These should come from your assignment and your in-class scaffolding that leads up to the completion of the assignment. (NOTE: if you include a writing assignment in your syllabus, then you need to include time to teach your students how to successfully complete that assignment.)
  • Test out your assignment; anticipate how your student audience might read/misread it. Ask: How is this assignment going to be interpreted by these students?
  • Effective assignments:
    • Have clear grading criteria (what is the teacher looking for?)
    • Are not intimidating (is the appearance of your assignment sheet overwhelming? Never underestimate the value of white space, margins, and legible fonts.)
    • Are free of cultural, political, or personal assumptions
    • Have a single, clear focus (avoid overloading students with questions & suggestions)
  • Provide models of student writing (which you should start to gather—with your students’ permission—from the first semester you teach all the way through to the last).
  • Be proactive in preventing plagiarism:  make sure your students know that they can’t change their paper topics at the last minute.
  • Meta-learning essay: establish the practice of asking your students to write a brief essay (or letter or memo) on the day a paper is due: “describe what you learned from writing this assignment.” Asking students to reflect on their writing process is not only a good practice for them, but also might allow you some insight into whether or not they actually wrote the paper.  Things you might ask:
    • What writing or research problems did you face and how did you overcome them?
    • What research strategy did you follow? Describe your research process for writing this paper.
    • Where did you locate most of your sources?
    • What is the most important thing you learned from researching this topic?
    • How did your paper change from first to final draft

Clear Grading Criteria

When asked to explain what she would consider “clear grading criteria,” Dr. Harris said

  • Pay attention to what is “fronted” or foregrounded on your assignment sheet. Front-load the handout with the task at hand. This is what you will primarily grade for.
  • Deal with formatting or grammar aspects at the end of the assignment sheet. Of course these things matter, but not as much as the paper’s content (critical thinking, content development, support, organization, etc.).
  • If you want students to use an essay as a model, then go over it with them in class to make sure they understand what it is you want them to model.

Muriel Harris’s book chapter on the same topic: “Assignments from Hell: The View from the Writing Center”  – Some of Harris’s advice centers on writing clear and student-friendly instructions, but often clarity of purpose and of expression, an awareness of your students’ writing styles and habits, the use of modeling–and the like–will help your students to understand their task, a strategy most Academic Integrity researchers recommend in order to help curb plagiarism.

Muriel Harris is a Professor Emeritus of English at Purdue University; she also developed and directed the Purdue Writing Lab. The popular Purdue OWL was created under her leadership, and she has seen many “Assignments from Hell” in her years of Writing Center work. More information about Harris.