Designing Effective Course Activities

Students may commit acts of academic dishonesty in course activities such as homework assignments, exams, projects, papers, lab assignments and team projects. By effectively designing course activities, instructors can prevent or reduce incidents of academic dishonesty. Many of the following design strategies have the added benefit of helping students improve their study habits and learn more from their assignments.


Course activities that require students to demonstrate their learning through a variety of methods help them feel more confident in expressing themselves, and they will be less likely to cheat.

Design activities for multiple means of expression

According to universal instructional design principles (Shaw, Scott, & McGuire, 2001), instructors should provide students with opportunities to express their learning and academic performance through multiple means. Course activities that require students to demonstrate their learning through a variety of methods help them feel more confident in expressing themselves, so they will be less likely to be tempted to cheat or plagiarize. Instructors should use a variety of activities, such as written papers, oral presentations, problem solving exercises and individual and group activities.

Customize assignments for each semester

Even though instructors may teach the same course semester after semester and use the same textbooks, it is critical not to use the exact same assignments from previous semesters; students may get copies of solutions for assignments from students who took the course during previous semesters. Some student organizations keep archives of past semesters' assignments and solutions, so instructors should not reuse the same course activities semester after semester.

Completely redesigning assignments every semester, however, is not necessary to prevent cheating; even making minor changes to assignments from past semesters can prevent students from copying. For quantitative assignments, problems can be modified and reused by using different numerical values or variables. For papers and presentations, students can be asked to direct their work to a different audience or focus.

Break down writing assignments

One effective way to combat cheating and plagiarism in writing assignments is to break down each major writing assignment into several smaller ones. Faculty can require students to brainstorm each writing assignment and submit an outline, followed by a series of incremental drafts or sections. Faculty can review the outlines and drafts and provide feedback while monitoring for cheating and plagiarism.

Breaking down writing assignments into smaller ones forces students to work on their papers regularly in manageable chunks, instead of postponing them until the end of the semester and resorting to cheating or plagiarism because of a lack of time. Students have the opportunity to improve each draft based on the feedback they receive. This method also benefits instructors, who will be grading smaller writing assignments instead of long papers at the end of the semester.

In large classes, where grading writing assignments can be especially difficult, breaking down large assignments into smaller ones allows instructors to engage students in peer review of each other's papers and some drafts. TAs may also find grading smaller writing assignments much more manageable.


Requiring students to include reflective statements in their assignments will reduce their ability to cheat or plagiarize and will enhance their understanding of the concepts.

Individualize assignments

When assignments require students to express their own thoughts and ideas, students will be less likely to copy from each other. Even for quantitative assignments, students can be required to provide their own written explanations of the process of solving the problems. Similarly, for laboratory exercises and studio work, students can be required to express their work in their own words, in writing or orally, thus forcing them to work on their own. Adding a reflective element to assignments can both reduce the students' ability to cheat or plagiarize and enhance students' understanding of the concepts.

Clarify assignments

One common reason why students commit acts of academic dishonesty is a lack of clarity and specificity about the assignments.

Faculty should provide adequate instructions and information about:

  • how the assignments should be completed
  • which resources may and may not be used, and
  • whether assignments should be completed individually or collaboratively.

If students are not permitted to collaborate on any part of an assignment and are not allowed even to compare their answers with one another, then instructors should state these requirements clearly. Otherwise, students may complete the assignment individually, but then check their answers with each other and modify their work before submitting it, thus undermining the intended purpose of the assignment.

If an assignment should be completed collaboratively, then instructors should clarify collaboration expectations. Otherwise, students may take turns to complete collaborative assignments and defeat the purpose of the collaborative assignment. Faculty can require each group to submit a detailed explanation of how each person contributed to the project to ensure a more equal distribution of the workload among students.

Check Your Understanding

What can faculty do to maximize the benefits of collaborative assignments and prevent academic dishonesty?

Along with explaining the reasons for completing the activity collaboratively, faculty should clarify collaboration policies.

Establish guidelines for collaboration

Instructors should also specify what type of collaboration is appropriate, including specific instructions about whom students are allowed to work with on the assignments. Will students select their own groups or will groups be assigned? Are members from different groups allowed to work together? Are students allowed to collaborate with others outside the class (graduate students, people working in a given field, etc.)?

Whether students are assigned to groups or allowed to choose their own, the instructor should be sure to consider interpersonal dynamics. For example, allowing a boyfriend and girlfriend to work together in a group may be problematic. The couple’s relationship may make others in the group uncomfortable. Or, if the couple breaks up, the group’s work may be adversely affected.

Require activity logs

One way to encourage students to complete their course activities individually and in a timely manner is to require them to submit logs of how they completed these activities along with materials they are expected to submit for these assignments. For example, students can be required to maintain a log of:

  • the resources they researched for a paper,
  • their meetings with the course TA, library staff, or Writing Center tutors they met with for assistance
  • a printout of the references used with date and time of use.

For collaborative activities, students can be required to maintain a journal of collaborative meetings and submit minutes of their meetings along with the papers or reports expected for those assignments.

Provide examples

Students often get frustrated when, even though they do not fully understand what they are expected to submit for a course activity, their instructors criticize their work as poor or full of plagiarism. Students need specific examples of what is expected. If faculty provide samples of what they consider a good report or a good paper, students will have a better idea of what to submit.

When faculty show how to cite references and how to properly use quotes in the examples, students are more likely to follow the models provided and demonstrate academic integrity. The samples provided by the instructors need not be complete; using partial samples prevents students from producing identical papers and encourages them to exercise creativity in their own work.

Require the use of a variety of sources

When students are allowed to choose resources to use in their course activities, they will most often use web resources out of convenience. Using only web resources can limit their research abilities and can also lead to plagiarism because students can simply cut and paste information from the web.

Requiring the use of a variety of sources, including web-based sources as well as books and journals that are not available electronically, expands students' research skills and may reduce opportunities to cheat or plagiarize.