Faculty Focus


Course Content and Course Assignments: Considerations to Help with Student Plagiarism

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Student plagiarism occurs in different disciplines and in all years of study (Holt, 2012; Wang, 2008). Plagiarism in colleges and universities is concerning (MacLennan, 2018). Cummings et al. (2002) report that plagiarism research started in the 1960s. Despite plagiarism being studied for the past 60 years, the plagiarism engagement rate continues to rise. The literature on plagiarism tends to focus on three categories: plagiarism engagement rates, reasons why students engage in plagiarism, and plagiarism detection or prevention strategies (Evans, 2006). The exact plagiarism engagement rate in higher education is unknown (Ehrich et al., 2016).

Ives (2020) suggests that learning why students participate in academic misconduct can help to “design interventions to reduce this behavior” (p. 46). There are many reasons why students engage in plagiarism. Balbuena and Lamela (2015) studied student motives for engaging in academic dishonesty and found that students engage in academic misconduct because they do not want to fail, they are busy, they do not understand the content, and they want to make their parents proud. Nguyen (2020) also investigated reasons why students engage in plagiarism, and he found many reasons, with the three most common reasons being time pressure, lack of paraphrasing skills, and not understanding the lesson [content]. Students may also plagiarize due to uncertainty regarding what is expected for assignments (Colella, 2018; Sterngold, 2004).

There are many reasons why students engage in plagiarism and addressing all the reasons is outside the scope of this article. Instead, this article will focus on course content and course assignment considerations—a key factor in why students may choose to plagiarize.

  1. One-minute papers: After an assignment is introduced, ask the class to write a one-minute paper explaining the assignment to a classmate who is absent. This will allow you to learn what your students know about the assignment, as well as provide an idea of which parts of your assignment may need further clarification. If you don’t want to collect the papers, you can do this as a class discussion and assign a notetaker to compile the notes. You can address any questions that come up during the discussion. This information can be shared with students who are absent.
  2. Provide a sample assignment and marking scheme: Have students work in small groups. Provide each group with a completed sample assignment and corresponding rubric. Ask each group to evaluate the sample assignment. Have the groups take turns sharing with the class the score they assigned to the sample assignment. This will allow you to determine if the class understands the assignment expectations and where clarity is needed. You can share the mark you would assign to the sample assignment with your rationale. Sharing how you evaluated the assignment may help students better understand how their work will be assessed. Allowing students to work in groups will provide them the opportunity to discuss the assignment with classmates. Through the group discussions, students may build rapport with peers, develop a better understanding of what is expected for the assignment as they engage with the material, and receive answers to any questions they have about the assignment.
    *Note: If you don’t have the class time to do this, you could have students do this activity in discussion board groups and then discuss it at the beginning of the next class.
  3. Incorporate knowledge checks and exit tickets into lessons: Add simple knowledge checks throughout your lesson and/or exit tickets at the end of your lesson. Knowledge checks and exit tickets are a quick means to determine whether your students are grasping the lesson’s topic. You might want to let students have the option of whether they want to complete these anonymously. Here are some ideas:
  • Compose a 40-word tweet that includes the main ideas from today’s lesson.
  • Pick a sticker that best represents how you feel about today’s lesson. Put your sticker on your cue card and write why you chose that sticker to represent how you feel about today’s lesson.
  • Check off the stoplight color that represents where you think you are with today’s topic. If students are on red, you can request that they contact you so you can provide extra support. If several students are on red, you might want to consider reviewing the content with the whole class. If you are teaching a lesson online, you can include a note on your slide informing students that they do not need to answer in front of their classmates and that they can send you their color in different way (through your LMS, chat feature, etc.).

As mentioned earlier, there are many reasons why students plagiarize. One reason for student plagiarism, as reported in the literature, is a result of not understanding the course content or course assignment. Adding simple knowledge checks and/or exit tickets may help you learn where students need extra support. These are ideas to consider, and I am sure you have many to add!

Julia Colella also wrote Plagiarism Education: Considerations for the Semester Start-up.

Julia Colella is a communications professor at Lambton College in Sarnia, Ontario. Colella’s PhD is in education, and her research interests include student engagement, online learning, and academic integrity.


Balbuena, S., & Lamela, R. A. (2015). Prevalence, motives, and views of academic dishonesty in higher education. Asia-Pacific Journal of Multidisciplinary Research, 3(2), 69-75.

Colella, J. (2018). Plagiarism education: Perceptions and responsibilities in post-secondary education. [Doctoral dissertation, University of Windsor]. Electronic Theses and Dissertations.

Cummings, R., Maddux, C., Harlow, S., & Dyas, L. (2002). Academic misconduct in undergraduate teacher education students and its relationship to their principled moral reasoning. Journal of Instructional Psychology, 29(4), 286-296.

Ehrich, J., Howard, S., Mu, C., & Bokosmaty, S. (2016). A comparison of Chinese and Australian university students’ attitudes towards plagiarism. Studies in Higher Education, 41(2), 231-246.

Evans, R. (2006). Evaluating an electronic plagiarism detection service. Active Learning in Higher Education, 7(1), 87-99.

Holt, E. (2012). Education improves plagiarism detection by biology undergraduates. BioScience, 62(6), 585-592.

Ives, B. (2020). Your Students are Cheating More Than You Think They Are. Why? Educational Research: Theory and Practice, 31(1), 46-53.

MacLennan, H. (2018). Student perceptions of plagiarism avoidance competencies: An action research case study. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 18(1), 58-74.

Nguyen, D. T. T. (2021). University students’ understandings, attitudes, and experiences on plagiarism. Cypriot Journal of Educational Science, 16(4), 1471-1478. https://doi.org/10.18844/cjes.v16i4.6001

Sterngold, A. (2004). Confronting plagiarism. Change, 36(3), 16–21.

Wang, Y. M. (2008). University student online plagiarism. International Journal of ELearning, 7(4), 743-757.