As an instructor, what do you do about the fact that students are likely to share your assignments online?

It’s increasingly easy for university students to share class assignments online, for instance via StuDocu. That’s nothing new–students have long shared assignments with one another. But it’s much easier to do now that assignments, and any answer keys to those assignments, often are distributed to students in electronic form. As an instructor, what do you do about this, if anything?

I can imagine various possibilities:

  • Do nothing. Don’t do anything differently than you otherwise would, just because StuDocu et al. exist.
  • Only evaluate students on the basis of assignments that can’t circulate online. For instance, project-based assignments, or oral exams for which the questions aren’t distributed in advance. A variant of this is to use very open-ended assignments, such that there’s no answer key, and no advantage to knowing the questions in advance. For instance, at my undergrad college, the introductory religious studies class used to involve a 20 page term paper answering the question “What is religion?” Probably many students who took the class knew about that question before they took the class, but I doubt they gained any advantage from their foreknowledge. One problem with this approach is that it’s not practical for sufficiently large classes.
  • Write completely new assignments every time you teach the course. Which has the significant drawback of being a ton of work for the instructor.
  • Slightly modify the assignments every time you teach the course. This is much less work than writing entirely new assignments. And it’s possible that you’ll catch some dishonest students who just copy the answer key from a previous version of the assignment that’s circulating online, or who copy the answers of a student who previously took the course. Way back when I was in grad school, the first year biology course at Rutgers used to do this.
  • Reuse assignments, but don’t give out answer keys. You can of course return marked assignments to students, and go over mistakes with individual students or with the entire class, without giving out answer keys. The trouble with this approach is that, even if answer keys aren’t circulating online, some students might gain an advantage over others by seeing the assignments online before the assignments are handed out to the class.
  • Only distribute assignments, and any answer keys, in hard copy. I used to do this for some of the smaller courses I teach, and I may go back to it. This at least makes it less convenient for students to upload assignments and answer keys, since they first have to scan them, or take pictures of them on their phones. That way hopefully you can reuse assignments more often without them circulating online. The downside is that somebody has to do the copying, and pay for the copies.
  • Reuse assignments, but use text-matching software to guard against plagiarism. I have an old post on what text matching software is available and how best to use it. This approach can prevent students from plagiarizing the answers of previous students. But it can’t prevent students from gaining an advantage from seeing the assignments in advance. And it might not catch students who carefully paraphrase previous students’ answers, though in my experience careful plagiarists are extremely rare (careful plagiarism is work, but the whole point of copying from somebody else is to save yourself work…)
  • Other possibilities I haven’t thought of?

One can of course combine approaches. My own approach in recent years has been a combination of slightly modifying assignments and not giving out answer keys, plus additional methods in some courses. But lately I’m wondering if I should change my approach. That’s where you come in; I look forward to learning from your experience and advice.

13 thoughts on “As an instructor, what do you do about the fact that students are likely to share your assignments online?

  1. You could play the whack-a-mole game of filing takedown notices for each of the sites that posts them, but like some of your other solutions, time intensive, and won’t stop the work from appearing over and over.

  2. Fighting online sharing of assignments is like trying to herd cats. I just assume I’m teaching responsible adults, who want to learn professional skills. There are always cheaters in any class, but making rules focused on them only damages the good students. Of course, whenever I get some hard evidence of plagiarism, the cheater gets punished according to my university’s rules. But I don’t get obsessed with policing their assignments.

  3. I recommend a text-matching software, together with a note with the eventual effect of plagiarism (here Students may be thrown out of the program if caught plagiarising). It does not solve the whole issue but indeed makes plagiarism much harder. To fool these tools, the student has to change virtually every sentence. And it is then a high risk for them that several students change the sentences in the same way. If you point that out to them, most student will not go to the hard task of doing this properly. Combining that with not giving out the answers, and perhaps some minor random changes, would probably be strong enough to dissuade plagiarism.

    In Sweden, we have the additional problem that students may find english texts and then just translate them. This type of plagiarism is almost impossible to catch.

    • “In Sweden, we have the additional problem that students may find english texts and then just translate them. This type of plagiarism is almost impossible to catch.”

      Huh. Now I’m wondering if my English-speaking Canadian students ever do that with French texts.

  4. I’m kind of with Marco on this. If I find cheating I report it. But I don’t go to exhaustive efforts to prevent it. In my experience, the students who cheat rarely are getting top grades anyway.

    One plus for having things on the internet – it is more egalitarian. Back in my day it was primarily fraternities, sororities and finals clubs that had “test banks”. Students not in those groups didn’t have any access. To combat this, it was university policy that all midterms and final exams had to be submitted to the library where they were available in large bound volumes. So, basically, it was university policy to do what the internet is now doing. And once you have 4-5 years of tests a lazy cheater is not going to memorize or prepare in advance answers to 4 tests worth. At least its a level playing field. With a level playing field the students who study the hardest end up with the best grades pretty much no matter what.

    The only place this really breaks down is if it is a straight up multiple choice/fill-in the blank with the exact same questions every year. So I try to have a healthy dose of short answer or long answer and rotate in about 20-40% new questions every year (both of which would be my preference independent of concerns about cheating).

    • “One plus for having things on the internet – it is more egalitarian. ”

      Um, that’s certainly one way to look at it! Though anecdotally, many students here at Calgary don’t know about sites like StuDocu. So I’m not actually sure if sites like StuDocu are really leveling the playing field all that much. Hard to say without hard data.

      • I’m not saying I support it, but it is better than only those who belong to fraternities and sororities having access – don’t know if that played out the same way in Canada, that may be just a US thing. But it was grossly unfair in a way tied to income and social status.

      • When I was at UBC in the early 2000’s, part of the fraternities’ recruiting pitch was their test banks. So it’s definitely something that goes on in Canada as well.

    • “The students who cheat rarely are getting top grades anyway”

      I suspect this may not be true. I suspect the people you **catch** cheating aren’t getting top grades. But people who get caught cheating are typically really bad at it. For example, the reason I caught one student is that they copied an obviously wrong answer [that’s very uniquely wrong], from someone they sat next to each week. Or my favourite was the one who wrote his assignment on a blank sheet of scrap scratch paper from the library that had the URL of the site he was cheating from on the bottom of the page! Someone copying a key and changing a few things is really difficult to catch. It’s possible that several of such types of students are doing quite well in your course.

      My solution for exams is to share every single exam I’ve ever given for the class with no posted solutions [I never show solutions, the only way to get a solution is to talk through the question with me in an appointment – which I encourage]. Everyone has access to all of the questions and if they memorize their answer to all of them, well they’ve taken a lot of time working through them and probably learned a lot. I’m fine with that. I don’t change all of the questions, but do change some of them, so at least 25% of the exam they can’t do from memory.

    • Hi Brian, here at my university I use Moodle for producing, organizing, and sharing the online content of my undergrad courses. One nice feature allows you to build a database of questions, organised by categories that you create yourself. Categories can, for instance, reflect topics or difficulty levels. So, whenever I want to apply a multiple choice or open exam, I just randomize the questions by category for that particular class. This way, my exames are not exactly the same between classes.

  5. Create accounts on the more popular sites that aggregate your questions and answer keys, and post multiple different versions with subtly different interspersed errors/differences in questions?

    With those in place, I might go so far as to actually give the students links to all of the possible answer keys before the assignment is due – if they can figure out which answers from what key are actually correct before the test or due date, at least they will have learned something? Obviously has the same whack-a-mole disadvantage as take-down notices, but at least to my twisted mind, it provides some amusement as compensation.

    In my experience, at least on exams in basic biology, “slightly modify the questions each time” is more than sufficient to knock over the large majority of the “memorize the key” cheaters. They memorize the answers, not the questions, so anything from changing provided coefficients to swapping objects and subjects in fill-in-the-blank questions is enough to put them off their game.

    • “Create accounts on the more popular sites that aggregate your questions and answer keys, and post multiple different versions with subtly different interspersed errors/differences in questions?”

      Heh. Like many ethically-dubious choices, that one’s fun to imagine, but not actually a good idea. 🙂

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