By Amy Erickson
Most of us, as online instructors, have experienced students cheating or plagiarizing. It can be frustrating, disappointing, and even time-consuming. Sometimes it can even be funny, in that students disregard an obvious font change, forget to proofread for American spelling, or neglect to remove statements about their current bid for Congress. (Yes, I’ve had that happen.) I had ideas about how to prevent plagiarism, but after watching Dr. Tom Tobin’s presentation “How Can Course Design Help Prevent Online Cheating?”, I realized my ideas were all wrong.
I used to think that personalized assignments were the way to go. Asking students to talk about themselves and their own experiences is enjoyable and doesn’t involve using the online library. (Something that many students seem to avoid.) Not only are these assignments a great way to get to know students and their motivations, but I (mistakenly) thought that such assignments would result in fewer incidents of plagiarism. After all, who knows you better than you? I was wrong. At one university I work for, a personal essay assignment resulted in fifteen reports of academic dishonesty in a classroom of twenty-five. Students like “Lorenzo” neglected to proofread or check the gender of the essay he had taken from the web and, in the middle of the essay, wound up lamenting his inability to get pregnant.
Mix It Up!
My next idea was to stay away from standard types of assignments. I thought it was unwise to simply ask a student to write a paper on a short story by Maya Angelou. Students often go directly to free essay websites (EssayLounge.com, AcademicHelp.com, Free-College-Essays.com, Brania.com) and download the first essay they find. I thought a stronger assignment might require students to mix things up a bit. For example, students could examine a short story by Angelou and compare it to a poem from the current Poet Laureate or a recently published article. If the assignment required the use of multiple, current resources, perhaps such canned essays would not be available for downloading. According to Dr. Tobin, though, this is not the best approach, either.
Dr. Tobin (2015) reminds us that we shouldn’t focus on catching students plagiarizing, but instead try to prevent it altogether. He discusses the importance of trust in the classroom saying that “the strategy of trusting students tells them two important things: one, we expect honest behavior from them. And two, we signal that we’re giving them some freedom in our courses” (Tobin, 2015, p. 1). Using an honor code is one way to establish this trust. Dr. Tobin (2015) warned that using it at the beginning of a student’s academic career is not enough; it has to be on every syllabus and in the instructions for every assignment. When students at Georgia Tech were continually exposed to the honor code and academic expectations, online cheating decreased dramatically (Tobin, 2015, p. 1). Sometimes honor codes require a signature, and Dr. Tobin (2015) suggests that a signature is powerful and can contribute additional “psychological weight” (p. 1).
Dr. Tobin (2015) also discusses sanction statements, where course expectations and consequences for cheating are clearly outlined for students. Sanction statements could be presented in the form of a microlecture at the start of a course. If we were to embrace Dr. Tobin’s suggestions, such a microlecture could include the following:
- A discussion about trust, integrity, and originality in the classroom
- Your expectations as an instructor
- The resources you have available to you to detect plagiarism
- Resources available for APA/MLA formatting (include yourself in this list)
- APA/MLA formatting examples
- Common citation errors and how to correct them
- Consequences of plagiarism
- Consider adding something fun like this citation game: http://www.lycoming.edu/library/instruction/tutorials/plagiarismGame.aspx
Finally, Dr. Tobin (2015) reminds us that citing one’s work is a learned skill and that we should take opportunities to coach students along the way. So, instead of trying to punish students for plagiarism, we ought to try to find opportunities to coach students through the process. Please feel free to share any sanction statements, coaching methods, microlectures, or other helpful resources here.
Tobin, T. (2016, October 20). How can course design help prevent online cheating? [Webinar]. In Magna 20-Minute Mentors. Retrieved from http://www.magnapubs.com/mentor-commons/?video=13946