5 Ways Schools Can Stop Plagiarism Before it Starts

When many schools and universities talk about combatting plagiarism, they are often looking at it through a prism of detection and discipline.

Frankly, it’s easy to see why. Schools often feel powerless against plagiarism and, when you consider that there will always be some who decide to take shortcuts, detection and discipline will always remain necessary components of any anti-plagiarism strategy.

However, the goal of schools should not be to detect plagiarism after the fact. By then, it’s often too late. An otherwise good student may have thrown away some or all of their academic career, and the damage has been done.

Instead, more focus needs to be placed on preventing it before it happens. As we’ve seen time and again, students plagiarize for a variety of reasons and, if schools can proactively address those issues, they can prevent some of the cases that, otherwise, would be destined for academic tribunals.

Of course, no prevention is 100%. Some will always choose the wrong path but, the more students that can be steered in the correct direction, the fewer that is true for.

To that end, here are five things that schools and universities can and should do to prevent and reduce plagiarism before students are ever tempted to cheat.

1: Craft Plagiarism-Resistant Assignments

One of the reasons many students commit plagiarism is simply because it is easy. However, there are ways to make plagiarism more difficult and, thus, less appealing.

The first approach is simply to give assignment topics that are difficult to plagiarize. The basic premise is to make the assignment something that is difficult to search for. For example, writing an essay about a book is fairly straightforward, but comparing that book to events in their lives or an unrelated piece of media (perhaps one of the student’s choosing) is much more difficult.

Choosing topics that are individual to either that student or the class makes it much more difficult to plagiarize.

Another approach is to change the assignment’s format or structure. One can either require multiple drafts (including handwritten ones in some cases) or have an in-class portion that requires the student to prove their knowledge is earned.

The traditional assignment format of “Write paper on X and submit it on date Y” enables plagiarism by making it easy for students to copy and paste their way to completion. This is something more nuanced assignments can help avoid.

2: Offer Remedial Education and Tutoring

One of the more common reasons students plagiarize is because they have a lack of confidence in their writing. Simply put, many great students are weak writers, and they need help with written assignments.

However, when students feel like they have nowhere to turn, plagiarism becomes very tempting. This is also true when a student is in a subject they are weaker at, as they may be confident in their writing, but less so in their understanding of the subject.

It’s critical for students to know that there are places that they can turn to for legitimate help. Whether this is simply speaking with their instructors, visiting a student success center or even accessing remedial classes, making resources available and then making students aware of those resources is key.

Furthermore, it needs to be clear that these resources are free of judgment and stigma. Otherwise, even students that could greatly benefit from those resources will be unlikely to use them.

Remember, every student in a student success center is one that is much less likely to plagiarize, drop out or otherwise risk their academic career.

3: Offering Alternatives

Another reason some students commit plagiarism is because they lack passion or enthusiasm about the assignment at hand.

Sometimes, this is unavoidable. This is especially true when students are taking required courses they lack interest in or when they just aren’t passionate about education as a whole. 

However, this can sometimes be helped by simply giving students options. This can be as simple as giving multiple prompts for an essay and letting students choose, or it can include a variety of assignment types.

Giving options gives students more opportunities to pick an assignment they are both comfortable with and (relatively) excited about, makes them more likely to do the work.

This also pairs well with the first item on this list as such assignments are often much more plagiarism-resistant.

4: Focus on Time Management

One of the core reasons students plagiarize is poor time management. However, time management is like any other skill, it has to be learned.

This can be an especially large problem for new university students who are transitioning from a much more time-structured environment to a less-structured one and can easily overestimate their abilities to get large tasks done quickly.

Teaching time management and offering tools and techniques for improving it can help a great deal. 

This has to be done on multiple levels. Teachers need to remind and encourage students about large projects (this is also another reason why requiring early drafts can be useful) and schools need to offer information about time management to students. If possible, make it a part of students’ introduction to school.

5: Offer Better Student Support

Behind many stories of academic plagiarism, there is a separate tragedy.

Students can go years without incident, successfully managing their academic workload and their lives outside the school. But what happens when students face sudden financial difficulties? The loss of a loved one? A divorce? A sudden health crisis? Or a myriad of other things that can disrupt student life?

Students often feel as if they have little choice but to plow through and do not know how to ask the school for help. Having a clear place where students in crisis can go for help during difficult times and where they can get help with academic pressures, so they can focus on other aspects of their lives, is invaluable.

Students that are facing crises or challenges outside the classroom perform worse. It’s that simple. Finding ways to help students that are struggling, both in and out of school, is a key step to preventing them from taking unethical shortcuts, including plagiarism.

Bottom Line

When it’s all said and done, there is no way any school can every fully prevent plagiarism. No matter how many opportunities a school gives, no matter how difficult they make it, some will always decide to take unethical shortcuts.

That said, the ultimate goal when combating plagiarism should be to prevent it. The more would-be plagiarists that choose another path, the fewer cases that have to be handled. Furthermore, putting efforts into plagiarism prevention ensures that the only students who do plagiarize were ones that did so maliciously.

Nothing is gained when otherwise good students fall into plagiarism because of a lack of confidence, an outside crisis or poor time management. If the goal of education is to educate students, then it makes sense to teach those students how to do better or help them when things are difficult.

So much the better if that work can be done proactively, preventing any problem before it starts. 

Every case of plagiarism is a tragedy. We just need to separate the avoidable ones from the unavoidable ones…

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