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.