Plagiarism in Online Courses

Stealing lightbulb idea

Plagiarism and cheating have existed in education long before online learning. That being said, with online learning comes new ways and opportunities for plagiarism. Why do students cheat? While it can be intentional, it can also be because students feel they are not capable of completing the task, aren’t prepared, or don’t have enough time (Edsurge). It’s also not safe to assume all students have the same understanding of plagiarism. Often, international students are not aware of the western perspective of plagiarism and the severity of it in the American academic setting (Gilespe).

Despite the varying reasons behind it, it is worth our time to investigate the best strategies to prevent this from happening in any setting, especially in our online courses.


You might be familiar with the tool Turnitin, which offers a “similarity report” of language used in a Canvas assignment compared to outside resources. If this similarity score reported as a percentage is high, then it is possible a student has engaged in plagiarism – knowingly or not.

Similarity Score Colors
Image from Turnitin

In Canvas, you can see the similarity percentage in the Speedgrader. Once clicked, Turnitin provides a detailed report of matching content.

view similarity score
View student similarity report
View matching content
View matching content. Images from Canvas @ Tufts

FIU Online offers two options for using Turnitin depending on where you prefer to grade the assignment (Canvas Speedgrader or within the Turnitin Feedback Studio). For more information on these options and how to enable them, watch this 1 minute video.

Detection Tools: End all, be all?

Will the use of these detection tools be the end of plagiarism in student papers? Probably not. But in combination with other strategies like those listed below, tools like Turnitin can be part of an effective plan to deter and monitor plagiarism in online learning.

Strategies to Prevent Plagiarism

  • Discuss your expectations with students from the start. Do students write a research paper in your course? Have that dialogue before students begin writing their assignment.
  • Offer resources on how to use citations and other’s ideas appropriately. If the course is writing heavy, say a history or research course, consider incorporating this information as part of regular coursework. FIU Library services offers citation and plagiarism resources on their Online Student Research Guide & Resources page. The Center for the Advancement of Teaching offers Writing Assistants to aid in these types of courses. 
  • Personalize assignment prompts to specifically reflect your class. This makes it difficult for students to copy and paste the question into a search engine for answers. 
  • Sequence the assignment. Offer a draft submission so students can receive feedback from their Turnitin similarity score as well as feedback from the instructor before their final submission.

What other strategies or resources do you use with your students to combat plagiarism? Continue the conversation with your instructional designer to find the best strategy for your course. 

Further Reading 

Gillespie, G. (2012). Guide to Advising International Students about Academic Integrity. The Mentor: Innovative Scholarship On Academic Advising, 14. DOI: 10.26209/mj1461301

Park, C. (2003). In other (people’s) words: Plagiarism by university students–literature and lessons. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 28:5, 471-488. DOI: 10.1080/02602930301677

Youmans, R. (2011). Does the adoption of plagiarism-detection software in higher education reduce plagiarism? Studies in Higher Education, 36:7, 749-761. DOI: 10.1080/03075079.2010.523457

Jennifer Antoon was an instructional designer for FIU Online. After studying adult learning theories in her master’s program and implementing them during her time as an adjunct professor, she became interested in discovering and creating learning activities that engage and motivate adults.

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