Each semester, my colleagues complain that university papers are either poorly written or plagiarized to some degree. What is often overlooked, however, is the role professors play in mitigating these problems. Effective strategies can easily be implemented as part of a proactive approach to essay writing.
Step 1: Assign an actual essay
Some professors have abandoned essays, describing them as “unpleasant for students to write” and “boring for instructors to read.” Others claim that they do not have the time to mark them, due largely to publishing commitments, family responsibilities and, in the case of part-time professors, a second job. Imagine if a student used the same excuses for missing assignments. “Sorry, but I didn’t have the time to complete them because of my part-time job, my sports schedule, and my social life.” But if students are expected to hand in assigned work to the best of their abilities, surely professors can find the time to grade essays and provide abundant feedback. If workload is a concern, the essay can be shortened, with an emphasis on quality over quantity. Professors can hardly complain about the poor state of writing if they have all but given up on assigning essays.
Step 2: Set aside class time for essay instructions
I have been told countless times that universities exist to promote research; essay tips are for high school. The reality is, the terminal degree for most students is the undergraduate degree. They are not going to become professional researchers but do require basic writing skills for whatever occupation they choose after graduation. For first-year undergraduate courses, professors could easily set aside one period per course per semester to explain essay guidelines in detail and to teach the mechanics of academic writing.
Step 3: Use office hours to edit essays
Too often, students who need help with their essays are told to go to the campus’s academic writing centre, or they are directed to the teaching assistant. These options have limitations. If the professor offered a critical eye during office hours, issues such as awkward phrasing, wordy passages, weak diction and inaccurate points or proofs would be immediately identified. It does not take long to proofread one or two paragraphs and to acknowledge skills problems.
Step 4: Provide an exemplar of an A+ essay
When students enter classes straight out of high school, many do not grasp the style and expectations of a university-level paper. There is no better way to facilitate this understanding than to provide an A+ exemplar of a previously written essay. After courses are completed, I ask the top three students in each class to resubmit by email a polished copy of their papers. The next semester, I place these essays online so that new students are fully aware of the expectations involving format, structure and grammar.
Step 5: Implement plagiarism safeguards
Professors should avoid assigning the same paper year after year. This kind of apathy only invites cheating. The challenge – and the fun – is to design a new essay for each class, with original ideas that truly engage students. Asking undergraduates to write an essay on broad topics is equally problematic. Essay topics that are too general can be easily downloaded or purchased. To minimize plagiarism, professors can provide a selection of topics to analyze, offer a list of mandatory sources, demand qualitative and quantitative evidence, and establish a quotation range (i.e., 12 to 15 for a first-year paper).
Step 6: Treat frivolous cases of plagiarism as “teachable moments”
There is a clear difference between actual cheating (i.e., copying and pasting exact paragraphs or long passages from a source) and honest mistakes due to inexperience. For example, a student may forget to place quotation marks around the proof. If this occurred only once in the entire essay, it’s simply an oversight. Overuse of paraphrasing can also lead to accusations of plagiarism. For a discourse analysis, this is easily resolved by insisting on exact quotations as evidence. If a student paraphrased only once or twice but used quotations throughout the paper, there is clearly no intent to steal an author’s ideas. Rectifying these mistakes should be treated as “teachable moments,” not charges of academic fraud. The goal it to instill confidence in writing, not to crush a student’s potential.
Stuart Chambers teaches in the school of sociological and anthropological studies at the University of Ottawa.