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Assignment Design and Its Role in Plagiarism

The relationship between the type of assignment and its resulting student product is new territory. Often times, faculty lament about the poor quality of student work, and often do not reflect upon poorly constructed assignments might play a factor in the lack of such quality, and may even invite or encourage students to be academically dishonest. Further complicating this issue is the immediate accessibility of electronic information which can be cut-and-pasted into a document effortlessly. Further, many assignments are based on information retrieval, and have no engaging purpose making plagiarism almost the logical outcome of the assignment for the students.

First, teachers should consider the following complicating factors in students’ responses to assignments.

  1. Different countries have different ideas about the ownership of ideas. Some cultures encourage students to use other sources directly because they are not “owned” by the author, and because it is a form of respect or flattery to copy the master.
  2. Even if students are not from other countries, many have a hard time understanding that ideas are currency in US Universities. People’s careers and economic securities are based on the ideas they generate and write about. Not giving status to such things, undermines their reason for being.
  3. Assignments often only ask students to retrieve information. They don’t require students to engage with, take a stand on, or do anything else with course information. This puts students in the quandary of trying to present a paper full of others’ ideas in some sort of interesting way without having a useful purpose. Is it any wonder that students unintentionally plagiarize?
  4. Different disciplines have varying standards on the type of information that needs to be cited. Common knowledge is defined contextually. While it is the burden of the writer to ascertain the level of common knowledge, students often find themselves taking courses in different disciplines with conflicting standards. This can be confusing to students.

Several things can be done by faculty to head off or lessen the chance of plagiarism. First, having a frank discussion with students about expectations within your discipline, and for your specific course is essential. This conversation should occur at all levels in all varieties of courses. This is not a discussion reserved by the folks who teach the introductory writing course. Since conventions vary from discipline to discipline, it’s important that you inform your students about the expectations for your specific situation.

Second, it’s important for faculty to realize that everyone across campus has the responsibility of teaching students to write and think. In these endeavors, we’re all in the same boat, and have a vested interest in helping students think and write better.

Next, consulting useful pedagogical resources to design effective assignments and looking at ways to discourage plagiarism through effective pedagogy are important too. See Jamie McKenzie’s article, “The New Plagiarism: Seven Antidotes to Prevent Highway Robbery in an Electronic Age”, http://www.fno.org/may98/cov98may.html. McKenzie asserts seven points in preventing plagiarism before it starts. According to McKenzie these include:

  1. Distinguishing the types and levels of research.
  2. Discouraging “trivial pursuits” or finding discrete facts just for the facts’ sake.
  3. Emphasizing essential questions.
  4. Requiring and enabling students to make answers.
  5. Focusing on information storage systems.
  6. Using student friendly methods for citation.
  7. Assessing students’ progress throughout the writing process.

Assignment Heuristic

This document prompts faculty to articulate the types of things they would like their students to do in the assignments, and tries to help the faculty get at the reasons why.

What is the name of the assignment, when is it due and how does the assignment fit in with the goals and objectives of your course?

What is the main purpose of the assignment?

To demonstrate:

  • Critical Thinking skills
  • Innovative or creative thinking
  • Content knowledge
  • An understanding of disciplinary conventions
  • Other

What types of student perspectives or opinions can be incorporated into this assignment?

  • None
  • Changes since starting course
  • Personal values
  • Values synthesized with facts and sources

How pervasive should student opinion be in this assignment?

  • It should not be included
  • It should frame the assignment
  • It should be present only as an addition to other perspectives

What kinds of perspectives and positions might be integrated into the analysis of the issue?

  • Expert perspectives in the field of study
  • Popular opinion
  • Other

How do you want the student to integrate perspectives and positions into the analysis of the issue or problem solution?

  • Not at all
  • Through referencing
  • As examined through a predetermined structure
  • As examined through a student-determined structure
  • As examined through one or more overt theoretical frameworks

What kinds of assumptions do you want students to recognize with regard to this issue or in their approach to the problem?

  • None needed
  • Student’s personal bias
  • Predominant Cultural biases
  • Awareness of views of different sub-groups
  • Awareness of evidence
  • Different theoretical frameworks
  • Limits or constraints to the observation of the problem or issue
  • Awareness of credibility of sources

What do you want students to do with their recognition of assumptions?

  • Nothing
  • Describe
  • Analyze
  • Explain relevance

What kinds of supporting evidence is appropriate?

  • Personal anecdote
  • Interview
  • Researched materials
  • Books
  • Internet materials (limits?)
  • Scholarly periodicals
  • Popular culture materials
  • Newspapers
  • Other

How do you want students to use their evidence?

  • Summarize to compare it with evidence from other sources
  • Synthesize evidence from various sources to support generalizations and prove a point
  • Extrapolate issues to draw conclusions (inductively or deductively)

What do you want the student to do to conclude the assignment?

  • Summarize main points
  • Consider personal implications
  • Consider social-cultural implications
  • Give the reader instructions or directions for additional thought or action
  • Draw plausible connections which support larger principles or theories
  • Other

What rhetorical (communicative) mission does this piece of writing have?

  • To teach
  • To persuade
  • To entertain

Who is the intended audience for this piece of writing?

  • Professor
  • Peers, friends, family
  • Classmate
  • Layperson
  • Professional in the field
  • Child
  • other

How long should the piece of writing be and how does this length support the assignment?

  • 1-2 pages
  • 3-5 pages
  • 6-8 pages
  • 8-12 pages
  • 12-20 pages
  • Other

Additional Details to consider:

  • Formatting requirements
  • Number of expected drafts or options for revision
  • Opportunities for extra-credit
  • The appropriateness of group work
  • Would the assignment be better if given in parts or stages?
  • Are there activities that could accompany the assignment?

Plagiarism – Severity

There are many kinds of plagiarism and many factors surrounding the severity of the violation. This table can be used by instructors as a tool for measuring the severity of a plagiarism violation and as a guide for a classroom discussion about plagiarism. Instructors are invited to define consequences for the various degrees of violation and to redefine the point system as they see fit. Begin by selecting at least one of these six forms of plagiarism (below – left hand column).

Plagiarism: Calculating Severity

  Choose one of these two measures of plagiarism frequency for each selected form of plagiarism Choose one of these two measures of intention
  A few examples seen across the work Numerous examples seen across the work Unintentional Intentional (or regardless of intent)
1. Evidence of incorrect paraphrasing because did not change the wording or sentence structure 2 6 2 5
2. Evidence of incorrect paraphrasing because of incorrect usage of the appropriate citation style 1 5 2 5
3. Evidence of incorrect paraphrasing because did not provide any citation information 3 7 2 5
4. Evidence of incorrect quoting (directly copying) because of incorrect usage of the appropriate citation style 1 5 2 5
5. Evidence of directly copying without giving credit (providing a citation) 3 7 2 5
6. Turning in a work completely written by another person (other people) n/a n/a n/a 55
Total Points (3 – 55) Degrees of Violation Consequences
3 to 10 less severe TBA by instructor
11 to 35 more severe TBA by instructor
36 to 55 most severe TBA by instructor

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