How can I discourage students from using AI and other web resources in academically dishonest ways?

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Plagiarism in college essay and paper writing is not a new phenomenon; “fraternity files,” where copies of exams and essay prompts were carefully collected and consulted, were in operation over half a century ago at universities and colleges. Paper mills are easy to find on the web today, and with the advent of artificial intelligence interfaces like ChatGPT that mimic college level writing, you might be worried that your students will be tempted to take shortcuts that will rob them of valuable learning opportunities. But the good news is that there are multiple, research-based practices that can be used to minimize student cheating on essays and papers. In this guide, we describe eight such practices and provide brief examples of how to use them. We are happy to support you as you explore and adopt these practices. Just reach out to CATLOE for an individual consultation.

1. Use more frequent, low-stakes assessments instead of high-stakes assessments.

When students believe that a single assessment or assignment will determine their success or failure in a course, students may decide it is safer to cheat than to risk a low grade. Instead of one or two essays being large determinants of students’ grades, you should consider two alternatives. First, consider smaller, more frequent essays that carry less weight for students’ final average. This works best if essays are iterative and help students practice similar analytic or thinking skills again and again. Second, and perhaps even more effectively, consider small writing assignments that build toward a larger essay: students turn in pieces of an essay throughout the semester and revise those pieces using instructor and / or peer feedback to create a final, stronger version.

With both these approaches, students perceive these writing assignments as lower-stakes assignments, feel supported by the instructor, and see assessment as a way to learn rather than a performance that might sink their grade. This plan for their learning should be communicated to students. Another benefit to these approaches is that the instructor will learn more about the students by seeing their writing and thinking develop across essays; this personalizing of writing assignments also minimizes cheating. Finally, instructors can structure the use of the feedback they give to students in such a way that students are required to integrate new ideas into the next essay. Writing in these course designs is personal, meaningful, and designed to help students, not threaten them.

Examples of frequent, low-stakes essay assignments that build to a larger paper

The instructor requires students to submit small pieces of a large project each week (i.e., decisions about topic of paper, three possible resources for a paper, a plan for conducting research, a draft of first paragraph, a progress report on analysis and writing, a draft of interpretation or key ideas about the research, etc.). These one- or two-page assignments require students to share their work to date but also their thinking about that work: students are asked to write the thinking or action steps they took to complete this piece of the work as well as a difficulty they encountered and what they learned that will guide them in their next assignment.

2. Help students see the value of assessments.

When students see assessments and assignments as just a hoop to jump through, they don’t see the need to engage in the work those assessments require. It is important to share with students how the assessment will benefit them. And it is even more important that you then give students time to generate in writing their own ideas about how particular essay assignments will help them develop and learn. Optimally, this writing should happen in class and be saved in an LMS journal space, so that students (or you) can return to these initial ideas as they complete or make progress on their writing assignment. It can be helpful to structure this reflection so that students make connections between the writing they’re doing and their academic and non-academic worlds. Students should share their ideas with each other and with you through a short in-class discussion.

Examples of communicating the value of papers

“You will work on the final paper project all semester and make changes based on feedback you get from me and from your classmates. The project will showcase how you can now use sociological theories to analyze and respond to a current social issue. I am assigning this project because I want you to be able to use what you learn in this class long after the semester ends. The project will allow you to practice skills like research, argument, and problem solving, which are skills you will use in every dimension of your life at the University: both academic and personal problems can be solved when we do some research into the problem, use theories to guide our research and thinking, and present our solutions in ways that are clear and focused. I want you to put your all into this project so that you can use sociological principles to lead a better life.”

Examples of writing prompts to facilitate student thinking about the value of papers

“Take about 5 minutes to write in response to the two prompts below. When you are done writing, I’ll have you work in small groups to share your ideas and then bring back one or two compelling ideas to the whole class:

  • How will completing this assignment prepare me for work I am required to do in other courses or in my major? 
  • How does the work of this assignment relate to goals I have for myself in college?
  • How will writing this paper help me develop as a person beyond college?”

3. Help students understand that you’ve designed a class to help them develop as writers.

Students who do not feel well-prepared for an assessment or believe that an assessment is unfair will be anxious, and this will make them more likely to cheat. As you design course activities that build toward the essay you want them to write, make sure that there are multiple opportunities for students to practice using the skills that assessment requires, and explicitly communicate the value of that practice to them. Remind them before assessments that they have spent time practicing what they need to succeed on the paper.

It’s wise to communicate the preparatory steps that you’ve planned as an instructor in your syllabus, but you can also point out to students throughout the course how the work that they are doing is iterative and builds toward the work of your assessments.

Examples of how to communicate your assignment design and the preparation work you’ve planned in a syllabus

“I’ve planned work for you this semester that builds toward the three case study papers that are the big assignments for our course. Each week, I will present you with a short scenario and guide you to practice analyzing it in the same way that you will be required to analyze the three case studies. Some weeks, you will analyze the scenarios on discussion board with your classmates. Other weeks, you will practice analyzing problems and proposing solutions by first generating some ideas individually in a Brightspace Journal and then sharing your ideas in smaller groups during our class meetings. I will ask you to draft a short written analytic response to two of those scenarios after we’ve worked on them. This will allow me to see how your skills are developing and to give you ways to improve your thinking. Those analytic responses and my feedback will prepare you for the longer case study papers. I also want you to note that the three case study papers are weighted differently: the first is worth less than the second and the second is worth less than the third. This means that I expect your skills to build over the course of the semester. Applying economic principles to real scenarios and cases is hard work, but with practice you will develop your skills. You will be ready when the final case study comes!”

“The final draft of your Ethnography of Everyday Life paper is due in two weeks. As you know, I designed this project for you this semester because ethnographic research is only as valuable as it is applicable to the everyday problems and situations we find ourselves in. You’ve been turning in pieces of the project throughout the semester, so in many ways the final draft will be a last assemblage of these pieces with reflection on the changes you’ve made based on my feedback. I have appreciated mentoring you through these steps and observing your development as ethnographers. I am looking forward to reading the final draft and will be creating personalized feedback about your learning so that you can continue to develop your skills as an anthropology major and / or in regard to your analysis of everyday life as you move forward to use these new skills to make sense of our ever more complex social and political worlds.”

4. Help students prepare—and feel prepared—for writing assignments.

The research on cheating is clear: students cheat when they feel unprepared for an assessment. The best way to work against this feeling is to structure self-regulatory preparatory work right into your class. Students will feel prepared (and be more prepared!) when they make a plan for completing papers you assign. It is important to note that not all students know that they should do this; alternately, some students know they should take time to plan their work, but don’t know how. Help students respond more effectively to assignments by having them take some time when they receive an assignment to read it carefully, reflect on its value, and make a plan for how they will approach it. This work should be done in writing either in class or as part of a homework assignment.

Examples of prompts that can guide students to plan in helpful ways

“Read the assignment description for the upcoming paper carefully. Then respond to these prompts:  

  • In what ways will this assignment draw on my strengths? How will I use these strengths to be successful? 
  • What do I expect will be most challenging as I complete this assignment? What resources (e.g., teacher, peers, course materials, outside resources, etc.) will I use to help me work through this challenge?
  • What are two things I will do this week (by date) to begin working on this assignment? 
  • If I am not able to complete this assignment on time, what options will I discuss with my instructor (choosing a late submission date, choosing to submit part of the assignment on time, other options that work for your course)?” 

This kind of analysis and planning help ensure that students reading assignments more carefully, and it will also surface questions early on so that you can more effectively guide students through their work. Have students write in response to these prompts in an LMS journal where both you and they can read and respond to their initial ideas. You can provide feedback—either global or individual—that guides and supports students.

5. Help students work productively with your feedback on parts of a paper or paper drafts.

Students don’t always realize that they can change their approach to their work and improve the outcome. When students receive a lower-than-expected grade on the first essay in your course, they might panic and decide that they will cheat on the next paper. Help these students by having them analyze their efforts and the feedback you provide so they can be more successful. After students have received feedback on an assessment or assignment, have them respond in writing to prompts that help them use your feedback to analyze their efforts and make plans for future work. 

Examples of prompts students can use to make the most of your feedback and feel hopeful about their next writing assignment

  • How long did I spend preparing for this essay and working it? Was that enough? Do I need to spend more time on the next assignment? 
  • What did I do while I worked on the essay? Did I (provide students with a list of helpful strategies here)?
  • Given the feedback I received, what are two new strategies (from the list above or others) that I will try when I work on my next essay? 

Students can analyze their work and adjust their strategies throughout the semester. Toward the end of the course, have students articulate their discoveries about the most effective ways to work, study, and prepare for written assignments. Ask students to describe how they will continue to use these discoveries in their college career and in their lives outside of school.

6. Allow students to choose the focus of their writing based on real interests.

When students see writing tasks as a path toward their own goals or interests, they are simply much less likely to cheat. In addition, they are much more likely to dig deeper, work with greater focus, and explore their own thinking more fully. If your course design involves a paper project that develops over the course of the semester, students can choose a topic of interest to them and explore why and how they will learn and benefit from that focus at the outset of the semester. Alternately, if your course design involves a series of writing assignments that do not build toward a final paper, students can also help finalize the focus of those papers or you can design those papers so that there is a personal investment for students.

Examples of personalized writing assignments

“This semester in The Psychology of Learning, you will be creating a short response paper every two weeks to explore how a different theory of learning can be applied to a personal behavior you would like to change (either increase or decrease). At the beginning of the semester, you will identify that behavior (don’t worry—only I will see the focus of your thinking and I’ll keep that private between you and me!) and then you will use different theories to create a plan to change it. At the end of the semester, you will choose two theories and develop an actual behavioral change plan. This project will really help you as an individual and also prepare you to help others with behavior change.”

“Ethics is only a fascinating class when we start to apply the big philosophical concepts to real situations. At the outset of the semester, we’ll decide as a group on five current-day ethical dilemmas we want to tackle. These will be the focus of our five short ethics essays. As we work on these essays, we’ll do planning and thinking in class, draft and submit first paragraphs, and then get peer feedback on a first draft of the essay. This will be challenging work, but it will be meaningful and you’ll get lots of help along the way. And, most importantly, it will be work you’ve chosen because it means something to you.”

7. Create assessments that are specific to your course and your discipline.

A key practice that makes it more difficult for students to use others’ work in lieu of their own is creating assessments that are very specific to your discipline, your course, and the goals that you have for student learning. Answers to and examples of such assessments can’t be easily found online. Inform students that the paper assignment you’ve created is unique not just to your course, but to this iteration of your course. This is another opportunity to frame the assessment as a meaningful and manageable measure of their thinking and learning, rather than an ordeal meant to tax them stressfully.

Examples of assessments that are specific to your course and your discipline

“In class we worked through two close readings of poems by Emily Dickinson, and we eventually decided to name this process “Dickinsonian reading.” For this short essay, use the four-step process we designed together to analyze a third Dickinson poem and a poem of your choice from one of Emily’s contemporaries in our course anthology. Analyze each poem individually and then describe how successful you feel the use of this close reading approach works for Dickinson’s contemporary’s poem. Greater details about this assignment will be available in our course learning management system. I’m excited to see how our methods work for you!”

“During the last three weeks, we’ve been studying the factors that play a role in major weather events. Below you will find data about a potential weather event, including some highly contextual variables related to regional geography in Florida, its coastal areas, and beyond. One of our main goals in our course is to be able to analyze data but to also be able to translate that data into something understandable to the average person who is not an atmospheric scientist! For this written assignment, you will be doing just that: you’ll respond to a panicked email from a friend in Florida who is sure that a hurricane is going to hit. You will use the data, make some predictions, and respond to your friend’s concerns. More details are posted in our course learning management system. This assignment will be useful to you and to people you care about as it is an all-too-familiar situation that we find ourselves in more and more frequently!”

8. Have students analyze and evaluate writing generated by AI and make critical decisions about their own writing

Academic writing is a way to tackle problems in our disciplines; every text we ask students to craft should be part of the disciplinary thinking our courses aim them toward. When the writing we assign them is meaningful to students and is part of a larger plan to help them develop their writing and thinking skills, students are less likely to cheat. We can, however, strengthen their resolve to resist shortcuts like ChatGPT by having them thoughtfully evaluate the writing it generates. Students can compare outlines, paragraphs, or short essays generated by ChatGPT in relation to your assignment rubrics or to previous students’ strong work. If you have students compare examples, don’t initially reveal which example was written by a student and which was AI produced. Students will be able to explore the differences between these examples and note critical weaknesses in the AI example. Alternately AI produced outlines and writing could be critically analyzed by students and they can annotate, edit, or revise the AI produced text. As you consider how you can help your students become critical of ChatGPT and other AI interfaces as writing generators, be sure your assignments are still aligned with the learning goals that you have for your students. A word of caution here: while some instructors rush to embrace ChatGPT as a teaching tool, it is unproductive to structure activities that are unrelated to the disciplinary thinking you want students to practice.

Examples of analytic prompts to guide students in an evaluation of AI-generated text

(A journalism course) “I’ve provided you with two outlines for articles on Afro-Indigenous farms. We’ve been working on planning out the arc of articles, especially in relation to a narrative that weaves the pieces of the story together. Use that focus and other aspects of our learning in the last two weeks and compare these outlines. Work in groups to do this comparative analysis. I want you to assign a score of 0 – 10 to both outlines, 0 being a horrible outline and 10 being a perfect outline. Make sure that your group has 5 reasons for your score.”

(A history course) “We’ve been exploring the use of primary sources in our work on the history of women’s crafting. I’ve got a three-paragraph short essay here on quilting in Appalachia and I’d like you to consider the extent to which the writer is productively using women’s voices to support their central idea. In groups use our writing rubric to help you decide how strong this historian’s writing is. Make sure you identify specific aspects of the essay in relation to the scores you give on parts of the rubric.”

After groups share their ideas with the class and have concretized what is strong, effective writing and what is not, you can reveal that they’ve been analyzing AI-produced writing. Then have students individually write down the specific weaknesses they see in this writing, what disciplinary thinking AI can’t do, and the value of doing their own writing and thinking. Students can identify specific writing and thinking moves that they plan to make on their next writing assignment. When students turn in that next assignment, you can ask them to point out one or two key writing or thinking moves they made that they feel has made their writing particularly effective.


Lang, J. M. (2013). Cheating lessons: Learning from academic dishonesty. Harvard University Press.