The QWC offers a variety of writing-related resources for faculty. Here you can find QWC materials and links to web resources on issues such as creating good writing assignments and preventing student plagiarism.
Creating Good Writing Assignments
In Assigning, Responding, and Evaluating: A Writing Teachers Guide, Edward White states that “devising writing assignments for students in writing courses is one of the least understood parts of any teacher’s job.” Through our daily contact with writers, we have found that most students benefit when working from thoughtfully developed and clearly written assignments. Professors and instructors can provide student writers with such an advantage by following a few basic principles when preparing assignments for both writing and content-based courses. We’ve divided the following resource into two parts. The first part, adapted from Erika Lindeman’s work, as highlighted in White, is intended to help faculty consider important features of an assignment prior to design. In the second part, we suggest strategies for designing effective assignments, drawing from the work of Edward White, Traci Gardner, Wilbert McKeachie, Beth Finch Hedengren, and the MIT Writing Center. A list of sources consulted concludes the post.
Questions to Consider before Designing an Assignment
A. The Writing Task
- What will the students write?
- Why is the writing meaningful and important?
- What will the students learn from writing the paper?
- What will the students’ performance indicate regarding their learning?
- How is the writing task connected to the goals of the course?
B. The Writing Audience
- Whom will I identify as the writing audience?
- Will the writing context created stimulate the students’ output?
- Do we have class time to discuss audience expectations and conventions?
C. The Writing Process
- How specifically do I need to describe the stages of the research and composing process?
- Will the students need to practice writing any parts of the document?
- Will the students require conferencing or feedback while planning and drafting?
- Do I have good model documents (professional or student) to show the students?
- Do we have class time to discuss any important stages of the paper?
D. Paper Schedule
- When will the final draft be due?
- Will I have time to comment thoughtfully and return the papers before semester’s end?
- Is the paper long enough to merit requiring submission of staged tasks (i.e., thesis statement, annotated bibliography, outline, rough draft, final draft)?
- How many points will the assignment be worth relative to other graded course work?
- Why is the paper weighted so?
- If parts of the assignment are to be submitted in stages, how will each part be weighted relative to the points possible on the final draft?
- Will I provide the students with a grading rubric along with the assignment sheet?
Elements of a Successfully Designed Writing Assignment
Your writing assignment sheet should open by explaining what the students will write and why they’ve been assigned the task. Is the paper assignment designed to teach the students how to synthesize information, form an argumentative stance on an issue, or to present findings from a study? How is the assignment connected to the goals of the course and the students’ educational development? The answers to these questions form the foundation for the assignment’s introduction.
Students make better writing decisions and write more inspired papers when the writing situation is grounded in a real-world scenario–even if you make it up! What could be more boring than just writing a paper for your professor? Try to create an audience for your writing assignment–however hypothetical–so that students can make the same assessments we make when writing in the real world. What is the educational background of my audience? How familiar are they with my topic? What underlying biases might they have regarding the issue? What level of technical terminology might I comfortably employ? What terms and concepts might I need to define? Tell your students where their papers will be published, who reads that publication, etc.
3. Define the Writer’s Role
Again, we’re talking about the hypothetical here–but if you can also make clear to your students who they are as the writers of the assigned work, the writing situation is even more clearly defined. An apparel studies professor has her students write a research report on an apparel firm. The professor describes herself as the CEO of a consulting firm looking for new clients; the students writing the research paper are junior associates at her firm gathering information on the prospective clients. A geography professor teaching a course on conservation of natural resources has her students write a book review on a title (of their choice) related to course content. The professor tells her students to imagine that they will publish their reviews on a website for university students interested in conversation of natural resources. Their audience will want to know if the books they reviewed are worth a read.
4. Describe the Document and Source Requirements
If the students are new to the document type, the assignment sheet should describe the constituent parts of the finished paper. What happens in the introduction? Does the document require a thesis statement? What constitutes a clearly-focused thesis statement for the paper assignment? Where does the document go from there? Are there required major headings, or do you want to give the students some freedom to explore organizational strategies? Let the students know your requirements for sources–number of sources and acceptable varieties.
5. Sequence the Assignment
For longer source-based assignments, consider requiring staged submission of task documents–a working thesis statement, a list of sources or an annotated bibliography, a paper outline, a rough draft, and a final draft. Identify due dates for each task on the assignment sheet.
6. Teach and Consult
Teach the document in class. Provide students with sample student papers so they understand your expectations and can model their work after the success of others. All good writers work from models! If your assignment is sequenced (#5 above), provide students with feedback on their thesis statements, list of sources, and rough drafts. When commenting on drafts, focus on the big stuff–argument, evidence, logic, reasoning, organization. Grammar matters, but it should be attended to late in the writing process. Note dates on the assignment sheet when you’ll be available for paper consultations. During consultations (and when providing written feedback on task documents) try to include helpful comments when noting problem areas and errors. Consider scheduling a date for a peer-review session when students can bring drafts to class and provide one another with feedback.
7. Include Info on Where to Get Help
The assignment sheet should include contact info for the professor or instructor, the students’ subject librarian (for research-based papers), the QWC tutors, any available web resources, and any additional resources unique to the assignment. You can email your assignment sheet to the QWC: we’ll distribute a copy to all tutors in advance of your students’ arrival for appointments.
8. Your “Do It My Way” Stuff
Let your students know all the business details for submission: formatting, font, spacing, due date, documentation requirements, and suggested length. Is your page count a barrier that students may not exceed? You’d be surprised how often we hear students say that they think their papers are too long when the sheet says “five pages,” and they’ve written seven. What kind of point deductions will you make for late papers? All these details–what a headache!–can actually save you headaches (and help your conscientious students) when you make them clear up front.
9. Evaluation Criteria
Grading rubrics are the most even-handed way to make the subjective enterprise of evaluating student writing as fair as possible. Your students will appreciate knowing before they begin how you’ll grade their work, so why not make a rubric? Your rubric can have a few categories or many. And you can weight each category however you’d like. The following are some possible categories you might consider including:
- critical thinking
- use of sources
- appropriateness of tone
- satisfies purpose of assignment
Sources Consulted Baer, D. & Kelsey, G. T. (2002). Creating better writing assignments. Writing from the Center, 3(1). Retrieved from http://www.english.udel.edu/wc/faculty/newsletters/newsletter_3.1.pdf Gardner, T. (2005). Ten tips for designing writing assignments. Retrieved November 12, 2009, from http://tengrrl.com/tens/034.shtml Hedengren, B. F. (2004). A ta’s guide to teaching writing in all disciplines. Boston, MA: Bedford St. Martin’s. McKeachie, W. (2002). McKeachie’s teaching tips: Strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin. MIT Writing Center. (n.d.). Creating effective assignments. Retrieved December 7, 2009, from http://writing.mit.edu/wcc/resources/teachers/createwritingassignments White, E. (1999). Assigning, responding, evaluating: A writing teacher’s guide. Boston, MA: Bedford St. Martin’s.
Plagiarism Discussed on Talk of the Nation
NPR’s Neal Conan hosted a discussion about student plagiarism on the 2/14/06 broadcast of Talk of the Nation. Panelists include Professor Donald McCabe, founding president of Duke’s Center for Academic Integrity; Turnitin.com CEO John Barrie; and Professor Michael Williams, director of graduate studies at Ohio University. Listen here.
Preventing Student Plagiarism
During the 2007-08 school year, the Office of Community Standards and Student Ethics had 123 referrals for acts of academic dishonesty, 50 for plagiarism. Many more cases are handled each year at the class and departmental level. Professors and instructors interested in preventing plagiarism might consider the following suggestions when drafting course syllabi and developing assignments.
1. Include the Academic Integrity Policy Syllabus Statement
Faculty are encouraged to include this statement, which can be found on the Academic Initiatives and Integrity page of Provost Gaber’s site:
“As a core part of its mission, the University of Arkansas provides students with the opportunity to further their educational goals through programs of study and research in an environment that promotes freedom of inquiry and academic responsibility. Accomplishing this mission is only possible when intellectual honesty and individual integrity prevail.”
“Each University of Arkansas student is required to be familiar with and abide by the University’s ‘Academic Integrity Policy’ which may be found at http://provost.uark.edu/ Students with questions about how these policies apply to a particular course or assignment should immediately contact their instructor.”
2. Discuss Academic Integrity on Day One
Describing guidelines for academic integrity in your course syllabus is a good first step. A conversation over the syllabus on the first day of class is the second. Many students need to be reminded why we give credit to the ideas, language, and creations of others. Students also need to know their professors’ expectations for honest class conduct and the consequences for failing to observe the standards. Another good resource for discussion is the 2011-2012 UA Catalog of Studies. Pages 401-404 describe the university’s rules for academic integrity and include specific examples of actions considered dishonest acts subject to disciplinary action.
3. Create Fresh Assignments
Plagiarism is more likely to occur when professors assign the same writing tasks from semester to semester. By making assignments new each term, faculty can reduce the likelihood that students will be tempted and able to appropriate the work of former students.
4. Require Assignment Tasks in Stages
Procrastination is a leading cause of student plagiarism. For longer source-based writing assignments, professors can help students to begin work earlier and can deter plagiarism by requiring the students to submit their work in stages. Set a series of due dates for submission of a working thesis statement, a list of sources or an annotated bibliography, a paper outline, and a rough draft–all in advance of the final due date of the paper. Award points for completion of the various stages so that your night-before-the-due-date writers have to participate. Most students will appreciate the arrangement in the end.
5. Set Due Dates before Term’s End
In some courses, students submit longer writing assignments on the last day of class and never see their professors’ feedback. By setting due dates for longer assignments 1-3 weeks before the term ends, professors accomplish several important ends. First, professors move the work out of the finals “crunch period,” reducing the likelihood that a student will become overwhelmed and make a bad choice. Second, professors allow themselves the time to read, to comment thoughtfully on, and to return student writing. Allowing for this important time sends the signal that the writing is important. Students are more likely to invest time generating original texts when their professors seem interested in their ideas and writing. Finally, because many professors report that they often suspect doubtful authorship but frequently lack the time to properly investigate, moving the grading of 20-30 papers out of finals week allows time for any necessary double-checking.
6. Ask Students Whether They Need Help with Documentation
Some undergraduates who transfer from other institutions or test out of composition classes may arrive in your classroom without proper training in documentation techniques. Although the Code of Academic Honesty places the responsibility for learning and executing these techniques with the students, professors can save themselves and their students trouble later on by simply asking early in the term whether all know how to perform to course standards. Students who indicate they don’t know how to paraphrase, integrate quotations, and cite sources can be trained during office hours, paired with classmate mentors, or sent to the Writing Center for one-on-one tutoring sessions and registration in the Understanding and Avoiding Plagiarism Workshop.
7. Additional Web Resources on Preventing Plagiarism
The following sites offer additional strategies and suggestions for preventing student plagiarism.
Sources Consulted Academic Regulations. (2009). In C. Allison (Ed.), University of Arkansas catalog of studies 2009-2010 (Vol. 103, pp. 35-36). Retrieved from http://catalogofstudies.uark.edu/ Carbone, N. (2005, October 21). No writer is an island; all writing is connected to sources. [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://ncarbone.blogspot.com/TeachingWriting/search?q=plagiarism Council of Writing Program Administrators. (2003). Defining and avoiding plagiarism: The WPA statement on best practices. Retrieved from http://wpacouncil.org/positions/WPAplagiarism.pdf Guiliano, E. (2000). Deterring plagiarism in the age of the Internet. Inquiry, 5(2), 22-31. Retrieved from http://www.vccaedu.org/inquiry/inquiry-spring2000/i-51.html Hedengren, B. F. (2004). A ta’s guide to teaching writing in all disciplines. Boston, MA: Bedford St. Martin’s.
Bedford St. Martin’s Workshop on Plagiarism
Nick Carbone has created a valuable online resource for preventing student plagiarism, Bedford St. Martin’s Workshop on Plagiarism. In his Introduction, Carbone reasons, “Helping students learn to save and store drafts, to handle and integrate sources accurately, to reflect on their research methodology, to budget their time, and to stay on track and meet deadlines teaches them how to be better writers and researchers. This is all good and necessary teaching, but and at the same time, teaching and requiring these skills and steps practically eliminates plagiarism.”
The site includes the following modules: Using Portfolios, Using Online Discussion Tools, Considering Plagiarism Detection Services and Search Tools, and Recommended Readings. Also available for download are plagiarism handouts for students and professors.
Carbone’s workshop: http://bcs.bedfordstmartins.com/rewriting/instructor/ir8.html
Defining and Avoiding Plagiarism: The WPA Statement on Best Practices
In January of 2003, The Council of Writing Program Adminstrators published an online statement of best practices for preventing student plagiarism. The statement has four major sections: (1) a carefully crafted definition of plagiarism; (2) a description of influences and causes of student plagiarism; (3) proposed lists of shared responsibilities for students, teachers, and administrators to help reduce the incidence of plagiarism; and (4) the council’s recommended best practices for policy-making, assignment writing, teaching, and disciplining violators.
UA professors, instructors, and TAs may find the WPA site helpful in several ways. First, the definition proposed by the WPA distinguishes between “plagiarism,” which the council identifies as presenting the ideas of another as one’s own, and “misuse of sources,” which the council describes as “carelessly or inadequately citing ideas and words borrowed from another source.” The council points out that many definitions of plagiarism often “conflate” these two acts. The two definitions correspond, respectively, to entry three of Level Two Violations and entry eight of Level One Violations on page 36 of the UA Catalog of Studies. The code does not make the same distinction between acts as does the WPA, In fact, the Level One Violation, which details failure to provide proper citation or attribution, is explicitly defined in the Catalog as “plagiarism.” The WPA urges professors to consider that (1) misuse of sources is not as serious an act as claiming the ideas of another as one’s own and that (2) many students who fail to provide proper attribution may arrive in your classroom without proper training and, in some cases, may require training more than they do disciplinary action.
Second, some educators may find the council’s information on causes of plagiarism enlightening. Certainly, the onus of responsibility resides with the students, but many commentators are coming to the position that a good faith effort to reduce the incidence of plagiarism involves understanding the variety of causes that contribute to poor decision-making and lack of proper execution.
Finally, all who write course syllabi, craft source-based writing assignments, set standards for documentation of sources, and evaluate student writing will benefit from considering the council’s recommendations for shared responsibilities and best practices.
WPA Statement on Best Practices: http://www.wpacouncil.org/positions/WPAplagiarism.pdf