Preventing Plagiarism Through Agency and Ownership in the Composition Classroom

Having taught college-level writing for the better part of two decades, I have come to believe that the two most important things that writing teachers can encourage in students are agency and ownership. While there is no magic bullet to ensure academic honesty, insisting on these two ideas helps students see writing not as a product, but as a process. This shift to a growth mindset allows students low-risk chances to take intellectual risks, as well, something they’re often hesitant to do, particularly in lower-level courses.

I teach at a small college and serve a number of first-generation college students, many arriving with the sense that academia is not for them. As a first-generation college student myself, I understand their struggle to fit in. Most students are not intentional cheaters. They don’t come into my classroom with the intent to deceive. However, when they hear terms like “drafting,” “revision,” “global concerns” and other writing-focused phraseology, they’re necessarily kept at a distance. As such, I scaffold writing assignments in order to emphasize the process.

To encourage agency and ownership, the following suggestions can help any writing assignment in any class, from development courses to senior-level capstones.

Proposals: Requiring students to submit proposals for writing assignments encourages accountability and ownership from the initial moment students receive an assignment. If a final product is radically different from a student’s proposal, then the professor has grounds to question the student. Proposals needn’t be overly formal. I often have students email me a short paragraph explaining their topic and their approach. As we work through the assignment together, I refer back to the proposal often, reminding students of their initial vision.

Scaffolding: Break the assignment into distinct parts. Require a proposal, a first draft, and a revision. I also require a cover letter with every assignment. Scaffolding the assignment encourages agency by shifting the locus of content control to the student. As a professor, you’re not telling them what to write. Instead, you’re providing a framework for that assignment.

In-Class Writing: While this strategy may be impossible for all professors in every discipline, devoting in-class time to writing encourages ownership in student writing. Talking about brainstorming or cluster diagramming is one thing; leading students through a guided in-class exercise is quite different (and much more effective). In low-level writing courses, I have drafting days that require students to compose in class. I encourage them to bring their earbuds to class and given them the hour to work. This way, they’re writing original content under my guidance, providing a safe space for them to stop and ask questions should they get lost in the process.

Reimagine Peer Review: Again, this strategy may not be possible in every class, but in my experience, students find peer review not only helpful but also liberating because they see that their peers often struggle with similar problems. I encourage my students to talk during peer review. Making them sit silently while their peers struggle to say helpful things doesn’t provide opportunities for ownership. When students talk about their writing, it becomes just that—their writing.

In the end, every professor has to find what works in their classrooms. Nonetheless, focusing on agency and ownership has helped me to give my students control over their writing. As plagiarism often stems from a lack of understanding, these strategies have helped my students immensely.

About the Author
Dr. Jeff Newberry is an author and professor. HIs most recent book is a collaboration with the poet Justin Evans, Cross Country (WordTech 2019). He serves on the faculty of the Department of English and Communication at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College, where he holds the rank of full professor and the title of Poet in Residence.