Well-Designed Assignments:  A Third Solution

Kenny Sahr, the 26-year-old college dropout who founded SchoolSucks, believes that his site is performing a public service, that teachers get what they deserve.  In a letter to educators, he takes credit for "having forced teachers to re-evaluate their role as educators."  He believes sites like SchoolSucks are "forcing the mediocre professor who gives the same mediocre assignment every year to be on his toes."

Sahr is not affected by lawsuits, such as the one by Boston University.  His site, the biggest of the term paper mills with 40,000 hits a day, offers papers with no fee.  His $5,000 monthly revenues are generated by the advertisers who buy space on his site.  He hopes to expand his collection to include papers in fifteen languages. (It presently offers papers in three language categories: English, Russian, Hebrew.) He delights in pointing out that the site receives its largest number of hits from renowned universities; Duke University is at the top of the list (Quittner 1997).

It is apparent that in this context, the solutions begin with the classroom teacher.  We can provide our students with professional guidelines.  We can engage our students in shaping the ethics of our classrooms.  But we must also be sure that our assignments and feedback are structured in ways that promote and honor scholarship.  I would offer four suggestions to share with colleagues in all disciplines, at all levels of teaching:

1.  Link writing assignments to specific learning goals for the course and explain the relationship to students.  A clear, specific writing task linked to the core concepts of the course is not likely to be plagiarized.   If, for instance, students are researching and writing about an historical event, they can be asked to examine the event from two different perspectives.  Such a paper will help them understand the complexity of historical events, while at the same time generating interesting original papers.

2.  Require both primary and secondary research sources in researched papers.  (Students may choose from a variety of primary sources:  interviews, surveys, questionnaires, attendance at a workshop or meeting, e-mail interchanges with experts, and the like.  Secondary sources may be prescribed:  specific journals, articles published after a certain date or of a certain type, etc.)  Papers with bibliographies to meet specific requirements will not be for sale.

3.  Become involved in students' writing processes.  Request a working bibliography shortly after assigning a paper.  Respond to an outline during the time when students are putting papers together.  Conference with students, even if only briefly, to ask for a brief summary of their research to date.  Require and monitor revisions of drafts with exercises, peer feedback, writing of abstracts, and the like.

4.  Add a reflection piece to the final paper, in which you ask students to reflect on the most useful sources, or the questions left unanswered by their research, or the ways their papers evolved from first to final draft.  (This reflection piece has in fact become one of my favorite parts of a writing assignment, for it gives me insights into my students' thinking and, since it is not graded or evaluated, creates a wonderful opportunity for dialogue about their development as writers.)

When we work with our students as they develop projects and papers; when we give feedback as they work, rather than merely grading the end product; when we model integrity in the way we work with students, most will begin to internalize the professional standards and ethics which will govern their work in the academy and ultimately go with them into their futures.
To Classroom Ethics
To Professional Guidelines
To Taking the Next Step
Return to Opening Page

CoverWeb Overview | CoverWeb TOC