For my writing courses, about 5% of students will come to me prior to deadlines asking for help with their paper. I see no problem advising students, as I often similarly came for help when I was an undergraduate. Recently, though, I found an increase in students who apparently just want to abuse this:

  • Students will bring me some plagiarized work, showing it to me early, as a sort of test if I will notice. It seems difficult to punish plagiarism when the paper is not yet submitted.
  • Students will bring in papers again and again, with little changes put in at each stage, hoping their minimal effort each time will be sufficient to reach their goal of a "D".

I've tried stopping students, but then they are angry when they see the "F" that they hoped I would help them get away from. While most of these students are probably just incredibly lazy, there is a chance that some among them are genuinely trying to improve, but just struggling a great deal, and I can't see it.

How might I go about blocking such abuses?

  • If you're looking to develop a formal policy to mitigate this behavior, you should explicitly state as much in the post (since answers for policy-based and ad-hoc intervention) may be different. And if not, the 'policy' tag seems misplaced.
    – ff524
    Sep 14, 2014 at 19:14
  • It sounds like you are already doing this, but requiring them to come in person with a hard copy of their work also helps reduce certain issues that can arise. This also eliminates last-minute questions which you cannot reasonably answer before the deadline. Sep 14, 2014 at 19:38
  • Related (via earthling): Where to draw the line when giving feedback?
    – ff524
    Sep 14, 2014 at 23:40
  • Direct them to an appropriate StackExchange site.
    – Kaz
    Sep 16, 2014 at 20:22

7 Answers 7


Here is one strategy:

  1. Specify the level of changes the student needs to make before they can come back again.
  2. Request that the student shows you what changes have been made by comparing the old and new versions of the assignment.
  3. If student has failed to reach the level suggested or fails to show you the differences, simply tell them to go away until they have made the requested changes. Simply state that your previous comments still apply.

Adding a time delay between when they ask and when you give feedback or when you give feedback and when they can come again might also help.

  • 4
    +1 for item (1) in particular. This helps with the problem in the question, and it helps actually move the student forward as long as they keep making the requested changes. I usually choose a few of the most pressing issues, explain those, and have the student address them for the next draft. If that is successful, I then go on to the next most pressing issues. I don't try to specify everything that might need to be revised. Sep 14, 2014 at 19:34

While there are some good answers here, I will just add a few thoughts from my own experiences.

I also have plenty of students who try for minimal work just to get a pass. I used to explain to them what their grade would be and why but in the end, all they heard was what their grade would be. If it was pass they stopped listening. Of course, this is quite unhealthy for their longer-term success.

I have since changed to not telling them what grade I would give them before they submit, partially because of JeffE's comment to this question. Now, I focus ONLY on showing the students how to judge their own papers. I explain that I will mark when they submit but if they want to understand how to mark their own papers, I will help them.

I do not check for plagiarism on drafts (though some students do ask me to). If I see something which looks like plagiarism, like the level of English goes from very poor to perfect, I do let the students know that this looks like plagiarism and, if it is, they should fix it with proper citation before submitting.

In short, focus on teaching them how to grade their own papers. This helps a lot if you provide a rubric. Do not tell them "I will give you a 'D' if you submit this." Instead, tell them "Tell me what you think this paper deserves and explain to me why you believe that." Then help them develop that skill.

They should become independent learners, even if they don't want to.

  • 1
    +1 for explicitly not checking drafts for plagiarism, which elegantly foils the "carnival booth attack" to plagiarism detection that Village notes. Sep 16, 2014 at 3:33
  • Completely agree with your last point about grading own work, ask them what they have changed and how they think it improves their work.. but don't forget the follow up question... "what else do they think they can do?"
    – Sayse
    Sep 17, 2014 at 6:54

Another strategy is to provide more guidance about what sort of help you'll provide and how they should ask for it. Possibilities:

  • The first time you bring your paper to my office [or during specific dates], we will focus only on whether you have answered the question.

  • I will be happy to discuss aspects X and Y, but never Z.

  • Bring the rubric with you. Be prepared to explain which part of the rubric you most need to address in your draft, and why. We'll focus on that part of the rubric during our meeting.

  • Before you bring your paper to me, prepare a list of specific questions you would like me to answer. Bring two copies of the list, one for each of us.

  • Before you bring your paper to me, show it to someone at the writing center. Bring with you your notes from that visit and the draft you showed to them, along with the draft where you implemented those suggestions.

  • Always bring two copies of your draft--one for each of us. Be prepared to write detailed notes on your copy. (Then you can keep your copy and you'll be able to bring it out the next time and say--ok, what did you change? Or you can compare it to the draft they turn in to see if they made significant changes. And if they plagiarised it, you'll have a record.)

  • Each time you show me your paper, I will expect you to create a checklist of things you will address. The next visit, you need to demonstrate that you have completed those things by bringing a draft with changes marked and annotated.

Another thing you can do is assign "draft" deadlines as well as final deadlines for everyone, then give the feedback you think is important on the drafts (maybe using a rubric) and not meet incessantly with a few students.

Another thing you can do--particularly with very structured papers that you have assigned before--is provide to the class a list of the common problems students have. Then when a student shows you a draft, you can initiate a discussion about which common problem the student thinks it illustrates and what can the student do to address it?

Another thing you can do is limit the number of times you will look at a draft, or the period of time during which you will look at a draft.

I have had a similar problem with students wanting me to grade work before they turn it in for a grade--not just on writing, but with all kinds of assignments. Sometimes they are so lost they are completely stuck. Other times, they seem to be trying to minimize their workload by increasing mine. ("Just tell me in exacting detail what to do, I'll do that and no more, you'll give me an A.") But what I want is for them to learn how to assess their own writing!

Whatever strategy you use, when you meet with students, try to elicit their comments. If you give a suggestion, and they nod, then ask them how they expect to apply it. What changes will they make to a particular sentence or paragraph? Are there any other places in the text they should also make that change to--which ones, and why? If they are to provide more evidence, ask them where they intend to search and how. Then you can better assess whether they understand what you've told them and whether they can actually do it.

I often ask students about how they produced the draft. Which parts were the easiest and which parts were the hardest, and why? Which parts do they like best? Which parts do they think need the most revision? Sometimes I ask them to imagine a reader--if they were to show their paper to (mom, roommate, employer, etc.), which part would be the most controversial? What would need the most explanation? If their reader disagrees, what would that person likely argue back? The more they talk about their writing, the more opportunity you have to say, "Yes! What you just said--write that down. Now do that!"

Another benefit of getting students to talk about their draft is that it is tough to talk about something you didn't write. If they let you know they copied passages, you can remind them (or explain how) to cite them properly. If they pretend they wrote every word, you have a different problem to address.


From what I have read in your question, it appears that you are enabling the students. I have had the same issue and it happens not only in academia but in all professions. Stick with the facts and the mechanics of writing, do not answer their questions directly, use an indirect method and point them to the source, allow the students to do the work. As an enabler you are in essence doing the work for your students(or so they hope). When you are enabling "people" to take advantage of you, it is very difficult to see and hard to admit. Your students are adding monkeys on your back, they are smarter than you think.

  • Stick to the facts
  • Give direction of where to find answers
  • Do not provide answers, provide guidance

It took a few semesters for students to push you along into this trap. It will take a few more for the message to circulate that you are no longer a mark.


Having taught in similar situations, I have to agree with Dave Clarke on requiring a demonstration of significant incremental improvement.

You can't let plagiarism on the first draft pass silently, either. If you see evidence of such on the first draft, you need to report it to the proper authority as evidence that the student body needs better training on what plagiarism is and how to properly use other works.

Hold firm to standards. You should have a rubric distributed stating the qualities of a paper at each grade level. If a paper is clearly an F paper, you should be able to point to your rubric and tell them that if no clear improvement is made, an F will be the grade they receive.

You must grade them, the non-recursive definition of which, as Merriam Webster puts it:

to separate (things) into groups or classes according to a particular quality


It looks like you have two different issues, it's easiest to discuss each of these separately.

  • Students will bring me some plagiarized work, showing it to me early, as a sort of test if I will notice. It seems difficult to punish plagiarism when the paper is not yet submitted.

This one is rough. You can't punish someone due to plagiarism before they submit work. The best policy, in my opinion, is twofold.

First - if a student brings plagiarized work then you should simply say "I'm sorry, I cannot help you with work that is not your own." and point to you university's policy regarding academic dishonesty. Repeat offenders should be put on notice.

Second - If you grade the final assignments or are involved consider spending a bit more time plagiarize-checking these particular student's submissions. These students have shown that they were willing to claim other's work as their own, being a bit more stringent in checking their work for originality is, in my opinion, completely fair.

  • Students will bring in papers again and again, with little changes put in at each stage, hoping their minimal effort each time will be sufficient to reach their goal of a "D".

This sounds like a communication problem. After meeting with a student there should be no confusion about what will improve the student's work. For something like a paper it should be "In order to improve this paper you should: extend the intro, go into more detail here, etc" Students returning for additional assistance should have some sort of checklist that they should complete prior to returning for more assistance. Make this clear and obvious and, if there are multiple tutors a student could work with, something that is kept in some sort of notes system.


If you see something definitely plagiarized, you could try to get them to claim it as theirs when they consult you and fail them on the spot for making the claim whether it's in class or not.

I do agree with @DaveClarke that on this or the other issue, announcing a policy at the start of the term (no more than N consults per assignment/per term, and plagiarism is an automatic F and will also be referred to the school's academic conduct team) would help set expectations, cut down on abuse, and give you grounds to say "No, it wouldn't be fair to others if I helped you again before you turn it in."

  • 14
    Trying to "trick" students into turning in plagiarised work so they can get an F sounds like a terrible idea, especially when many students might not be sure exactly what constitutes plagiarism.
    – ff524
    Sep 14, 2014 at 19:41
  • 1
    They're tricking themselves... But I did propose swatting them when they bring it in for review rather than waiting. If it looks accidental, I agree they should just be told "bad dog, NO!", but if it's deliberate after being warned up front I honestly believe they're asking for it and should learn consequenses as students rather than when their employer/publisher can get hurt. I do grant that there's the fuzzy space of "Oh, that's why that storyline felt familiar; I really didn't remember having read that but now that I see it again I agree that I paraphrased it too directly."
    – keshlam
    Sep 14, 2014 at 21:23
  • 5
    I still find the approach advocated in the (new) first paragraph to be counterproductive. Instructors shouldn't be trying to catch students cheating so as to fail them; they should be trying to catch students cheating so as to educate them. Finding out a student is considering misconduct before they actually do it is a great opportunity to educate them without having to fail them.
    – ff524
    Sep 14, 2014 at 23:44
  • 3
    @Nicholas I don't see those at the only two options. You could punish them for plagiarism only if they actually submit plagiarized work. You could do what earthling suggests and, when they ask for help before submission, point them towards resources to judge plagiarism for themselves (in my experience, students are shockingly uninformed about what constitutes plagiarism). You could make them take a plagiarism workshop if they come to you for help with plagiarized content. Failure is not the only way they'll learn - it's actually a pretty extreme way to learn, in an educational setting
    – ff524
    Sep 15, 2014 at 14:30
  • 2
    Who teaches them that their actions have real repercussions?Their parents. (Ha ha only serious.)
    – JeffE
    Sep 16, 2014 at 0:13

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