Plagiarism pitfalls: Preparing your students


Plagiarism is a real danger for students progressing to university. Dr Cath Ellis looks at what universities expect from students, while Gill Rowell considers how schools can design course assignments to teach key essay skills and steer students away from

What do universities expect from your students?

As a university lecturer, one of the most common questions I am asked by undergraduate students is: “How many references do I need for my essay?” 

My answer to this question is always exactly the same: “You need as many as you need.”

While my answer is unlikely to be what they want or even expect to hear, their question belies a fundamental lack of understanding – and in some cases a misunderstanding – of how scholarship works.

Moving from secondary school to undergraduate study is a big transition for most students. One of the most significant parts of this transition for many students is learning how to take greater control of and responsibility for their own learning. 

Another way of thinking about this is that being an undergraduate student is all about becoming a scholar. It stands to reason, therefore, that understanding how scholarship works is a significant and important part of this transition process.

It is entirely possible that we, as undergraduate lecturers, are contributing to this problem. Behind my students’ question is, I suspect, an anxiety which circles around their getting their referencing right. This anxiety is, no doubt, fuelled by the incessant emphasis on plagiarism – what it is, how they must avoid it, and the consequences that come with being caught – that characterises the induction processes that are typical for undergraduate courses. 

The quasi-legal discourse we use to discuss plagiarism and academic misconduct also implicitly raises the stakes. We tend to only offer students training on how to reference, usually just using one referencing style or system. 

In comparison, we spend very little time explaining why we reference. This would entail talking about some of the fundamental principles of scholarship: that it doesn’t and cannot exist in a vacuum, that all good scholarship builds on what has come before it and, ideally, can be built on in turn by subsequent scholarship. 

We also spend very little time discussing the morality and ethics of scholarly conduct – what we tend to refer to as academic or educational integrity – and that integrity is not confined to the hallowed halls of the academy but is something that will be important to them throughout their working lives. 

The reasons we are not having those conversations with students is, I suspect, because we tend to work from the assumption that students already know these things. We assume that they already get what scholarship is, how it works, and what they should be doing to produce it. 

We also tend to assume that they understand why it matters, not just in scholarship but in every walk of life. In many, perhaps most, instances they already do get it. But for too many students, making the distinction between using someone else’s words and ideas to support their own and using them instead of their own is still beyond them. 

This is, I suggest, where secondary teachers come in. The solution to the problem is not going to be found in drilling referencing techniques into students from an early age. Nor is it to be found in beating students any further with the thou-must-not-plagiarise stick.

The solution, I suspect, is to be found in improving student agency: empowering students earlier on in their learning journey to understand what scholarship is and, more importantly, to develop their sense of themselves as scholars. 

We need to find better ways to enable secondary students to be producers and not just consumers of knowledge, to strengthen their confidence in supporting their own ideas with evidence, critical-thinking and analysis, and, most importantly, to build effectively and productively on what has come before. 

This will, almost certainly, not just contribute to the eradication of plagiarism, but it will also make for more empowered and effective thinkers who are best placed to tackle the problems their generation will need to overcome.   


Tips for designing plagiarism out of coursework projects

Any approach to addressing plagiarism should focus on promoting the importance of scholarship and academic integrity to students. 

While being mindful of a minority of students who may submit unoriginal work, it is important that when assessing coursework, we encourage students to think for themselves and develop the key writing and research skills which are essential to further study or their chosen career.

Below are seven simple suggestions for engaging students in the learning process and getting the most out of their coursework tasks, not only as a means of preventing plagiarism but also to make the experience more rewarding.

Personalise it: Try to add personal touches to seemingly dry topics – for example, relating historical figures to modern day politicians or celebrities. Asking students to let their personal experiences colour their views can help to engage learners and also prevent them from downloading generic coursework essays from the growing number of essay bank sites which target GCSE and A level coursework.

Add a case study: Ask students to interview a specialist related to the topic being assessed, adding a case study element. This kind of activity may be particularly pertinent to more vocational subjects where similar research may be required in the world of work.

Update coursework assignments: Ensure you as teacher change elements of the coursework task from one year to the next. This will prevent students from making use of work written in previous years by friends or siblings. 

Use peer review: Engage students in peer review where they mark each other’s non-assessed work and provide constructive feedback to each other. This can be a fun activity to do either in class or online which will help to build students’ confidence in their own abilities and develop key critical-thinking skills.

Use technology to engage students: Using forums and blogs to generate debate and discussion among students can create an excited buzz around a subject. Technology is a great enabler and can encourage contributions from those students who may feel less comfortable about contributing to face-to-face discussions in the classroom.

Offer constructive feedback: Encourage students by offering feedback on their work in progress. Not only will it address any potential issues early on, positive feedback will also motivate students and demonstrate that their teacher is interested in what they are doing.

Assess the process: While the final assignment is of course key to an assessed task, any submission starts with research, writing notes, linking ideas and redrafting, and these initial stages can be just as important in helping students learn to manage their time effectively and prevent any last-minute panics which could lead to plagiarism. Again, offer feedback on the research and drafting process.

  • Dr Cath Ellis is an English lecturer at the University of Huddersfield, where she is also a university teaching fellow and head of the School of Music, Humanities and Media. Gill Rowell is academic advisor for



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