Yale Center for Teaching and Learning

Preempting Plagiarism

When students are better prepared, they take fewer shortcuts. To help ensure that students are ready to use sources well, we suggest some combination of the following four strategies.

Design Assignments That Are More Closely Tied to Your Course

Students are more likely to plagiarize in assignments with open topics, largely because they are more likely to feel overwhelmed by an open topic. Freshmen, sophomores, and writers new to a field find it especially difficult to frame a topic of appropriate scale.

Revising your assignment so that it connects more closely to your course does not mean you should ask narrow questions with simple answers. Often slight revisions are enough to point students in the right direction. See Revised Assignments for examples of topics that have been tweaked.

In fact, we consider the opportunity to pursue an original question to be the most compelling feature of academic scholarship. If we build exercises to help them narrow down the field themselves, students can take a relatively open question and arrive at a rich, complex question. The suggestions below are designed to reduce plagiarism risks in even very open assignments.

Note that many students have difficulties not just with open term paper topics, but also with open-ended Reading Responses. When the assignment is vague, or students don’t understand its purpose, they may not recognize the need to develop their own, original responses. More focused assignments and a clear sense of your expectations can make Reading Responses much more productive.

Do More to Help Students Understand Your Expectations

Students sometimes reach for other people’s work when they are confused or overwhelmed by the assignment. There are many small things you can do to enhance their understanding. (a) Talk to students about how a given assignment compares to another they have completed for you. (b) Show students an example of similar work, either from a previous student or with a brief excerpt from a professional text. (c) When you give out the assignment, give students a few minutes to take notes or to talk briefly with each other, then give them time to ask questions. This last activity can be valuable if you do it as soon as you hand out the assignment, or if you do it in the following class session, after students have had time for some ideas to coalesce.

Help Students Start Working Before the Last Minute

Most students decide to plagiarize when the fear of failure arises after they think it’s too late to ask for help. Beginning to work sooner can help students avoid desperation altogether; but even when we’re not fully successful, getting them to their desperation sooner gives them a chance to ask for help.

Requiring drafts is an invaluable way to reduce last-minute papers, as students can also learn from your feedback as they revise. But there are less labor-intensive techniques that can still make a big difference. (a) Have students write briefly and talk about the assignment in class; this can immediately begin to demystify what’s expected of them. (See suggestion 2, above.) (b) Along these lines, have students talk to a partner about their paper topic, in class, in the week before the paper is due. Even students who haven’t started writing can develop some momentum from rehearsing their ideas to a classmate. (c) Have students turn in a sentence or paragraph about their topics a week before the paper is due. (d) Have students turn in topic proposals or bibliographies as preliminary steps to a final paper.

Explain Your Own Use of Sources in Lectures and Class Discussions

Most professors model how to use sources appropriately whenever they lecture or respond to questions in class. We’re suggesting that you call attention to more of these moments. (a) On one level, this can be as simple as naming what you’ve done. “Note that I’ve just synthesized three different answers to the central question.” (b) If you know of a particular technique with sources you want students to adopt, you might try modeling it even more explicitly. “Note that I’ve done here one of the things I’ve asked you to practice in your papers—agreed with one aspect of Freud’s argument, but then extended or complicated it to develop my own idea.” Just a few such explicit instances can help students understand better how they’re meant to use sources in their own arguments.

Such explicit modeling works with almost any skill you want students to develop as writers and thinkers. As a rule of thumb, we’d advise making one reference of this kind in every class session.