Useful Tips on Avoiding Plagiarism

Teachers are generally kind and nurturing people. Students who plagiarize their assignments from these kind and nurturing teachers are often given a second chance when caught and encouraged to do their work over, but wouldn’t it be better if we could eliminate their need to plagiarize?

Easy to Answer, Easy to Plagiarize

If a teacher assigns a paper on Maria Montessori, Monticello, or a mosquito (can you tell that I have the M volume of World Book with me here as I write?), some students would be hard pressed not to plagiarize. After all, who can do better than this:

“Monticello is the home Thomas Jefferson designed and built for himself on a hilltop just outside Charlottesville, Virginia. He started planning Monticello in 1768, and construction began in 1770. The first part was completed in 1775, but alterations and expansions continued until 1809.

In designing Monticello, Jefferson drew on his knowledge of local traditions, ancient Roman buildings, and especially the work of Andrea Palladio, an Italian architect of the 1500s. Palladio’s Villa Rotonda near Vicenza, Italy, is the major source for Monticello’s symmetrical plan and central dome. Jefferson also added several original and practical elements, such as a revolving desk and an enclosed bed that opened onto both his bedroom and study.”

In this case, I copied the entire article out of World Book. If I use World Book Online, I don’t even need to type the text myself. When given assignments that require research on a certain topic, students often plagiarize because they find their assignment has already been done in the resources they are using.

Even if a teacher requires three citations with the assignment, in reality, students are copying and pasting from one resource (such as my outstanding report on Monticello above) and then including citations from resources they have not used. In my Monticello assignment, my Works Cited might look like the one below, even though I have not even looked at two of the sources I cite:

  • Hennessey, William J. “Monticello.” The World Book Encyclopedia . 2005. 767.
  • Severance, John B. Thomas Jefferson: Architect of Democracy . New York: Clarion Books, 1998.
  • Woodger, Elin, and Brandon Toropov. “Monticello and the Lewis and Clark Expedition.” Encyclopedia of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2004. Facts On File, Inc. American History Online. ( ).

Many assignments are structured so that students only need to gather information and share that information in some way, whether it is in the form of a report, a poster, a brochure, or a slide show. When an assignment’s expectation is for the student to use only the first two levels of Bloom’s taxonomy— knowledge and comprehension —the student is much more likely to plagiarize. In fact, many students never even get to the comprehension level of Bloom’s taxonomy, since there is no need for them to read what it is they are plagiarizing. We, as teachers, would find these types of assignments difficult. How many of you can write a better report than my example above on Monticello? Think how much more of an issue this becomes if we do not want to spend too much time on the assignment.

Assignments with a Twist

The first tip for eliminating plagiarism has not so much to do with what we teach the students but everything to do with how we structure assignments: avoid all assignments that ask students to research a topic and present information on that topic. No more reports on anything. No more posters that allow students simply to present information. No more slide shows or brochures that only share information gathered from other resources.

But then how do we get students to research? I don’t know how and don’t have time to structure assignments differently than I have in the past. Where will I get ideas? Some actual examples and a discussion of some generic ideas for restructuring assignments should help clarify the requirements.

Recently a teacher had her class conduct research on famous women. A typical assignment, this may sound exactly like what we agreed not to do. But this is not all the teacher required. Students had to write a persuasive essay in the form of a letter to the president of the United States indicating why the famous woman they were researching should be given an award. Wow! Just that little twist makes an enormous difference.

When a research assignment is structured so that the students must present an argument or persuade the reader, they simply cannot cut and paste their way to a final project. Students have to research the topic, in this case a famous woman, interpret the facts, demonstrate and explain why their famous woman is deserving of the award, formulate an argument to convince the president, and support their argument with facts from their research. These are the higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy. This teacher has structured the assignment so students cannot plagiarize, which means she is making it easier for the students to succeed.

Another teacher assigned her students a poetry project. But look closely at the twist this second teacher has put on her assignment. She discussed how poems are usually published in anthologies, how anthologies are organized, and how poems are chosen for inclusion in anthologies. Students were asked to choose three poems from three different anthologies to create their own mini-anthology. They were then asked to write about why and how these poems were chosen. Even if a student were to choose three concrete poems, that student could not plagiarize from an article about concrete poems. The student would have to use higher-level thinking skills to compare poems that are similar, discard poems that contrast with the chosen theme, evaluate whether the three poems chosen truly belong together, and make sense of the selections. Then the student has to explain all of that in writing. Not even a chance for plagiarism.

When students think about their research, formulate ideas about it, and then present it, we can eliminate (or severely reduce) the amount of plagiarism in our schools. To create an assignment that makes plagiarism a remote possibility, think Bloom’s taxonomy. Ask students to compare and contrast two people, things, or places that they have researched. Have students choose one person, thing, or place after researching several (you set the amount) and defend why they have chosen that one. Create an assignment where students must speak in another voice or use another point of view. Have them create a dialogue using two points of view or voices. Assign “what if?” projects. What if a person from a period in time you are studying were living today? What if they were living today in a different place?

You get the picture. A twist is needed, something that takes the research in a different direction than what might already exist online, just waiting to be cut and pasted. And if you cannot think of a twist, ask a colleague, another media specialist, or the principal. But make sure you include the twist. You will be helping your students to succeed and guiding them to higher-level thinking.

Preventing Plagiarism with More Research

Although the structure of the assignment is the most important factor in eliminating plagiarism, here are some additional tips:

Schedule time in the media center for research. Having students do their work in school, under your supervision and using reliable print and online resources, means they will be less likely to go home and “Google” an entire project. (It also means you get the benefit of the library media specialist’s extra set of hands.)

Use citation sheets. Have students copy and paste their citations from online resources or from Noodle Tools and print out their sheets. These blank sheets with only a citation at the top can be used for note taking. Collect these sheets as part of the assignment.

Have students hand in their rough drafts.

Make sure that the information you want the students to find is available. Do a test drive of the project ahead of time, or ask the library media specialist to test drive it with you.

Assign more research. The more practice students have with research skills in assignments that prevent them from plagiarizing, the more comfortable they will be with research and the less likely they will be to see a need for plagiarism.

Maryellen Hamalainen

MLA Citation Hamalainen, Maryellen. "Useful Tips on Avoiding Plagiarism." Library Media Connection, 25, no. 6, March 2007. School Library Connection,

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Entry ID: 2150020

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