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SafeAssign as a Tool for Learning

April 18, 2022 • By Sydney Hamrick and Lori Jacobson

Teaching the ethical use of sources in academic writing is a challenge. Some faculty address this issue by using SafeAssign, the “plagiarism prevention tool” integrated into Blackboard. When used with care, SafeAssign can (in its own words), “create opportunities to help students identify how to properly attribute sources.” In that sense, it can facilitate learning. However, when used strictly to monitor citation habits, SafeAssign can impede learning by raising student anxiety.

This post describes variations in student experiences with academic writing and offers low-stress strategies–with and without SafeAssign–for teaching responsible use of sources.

Understand Your Students’ Needs
Students arrive in your classroom with varying academic writing experiences, so it’s important to resist making assumptions about what they know about using sources.

New undergraduate students might never have written an academic paper using appropriately cited source material.
Advanced undergraduates might be unfamiliar with the citation style expected in your field.
Graduate students might struggle to transfer what they learned as undergraduates to the higher stakes of graduate-level writing.
Professional students making a career shift or returning to school after a long absence might stumble over unfamiliar expectations.
International students might have developed their understanding of academic writing in cultures that view copying work as neutral or even positive and might be completely unfamiliar with U.S. expectations related to academic integrity.

Help Students Develop Expertise
To help, first consider how your field uses source materials and make sure your students understand those expectations. Watch out for your own expert blind spots, the tendency to forget how challenging it is for novices to learn what has become second nature to you. Spending class time looking at examples and teaching fundamental citation skills will help students move forward on the path from novice to expert.

For example, if your field prioritizes paraphrasing over quoting, show students examples of quality paraphrasing and have them practice on low-stakes assignments. Paraphrasing is a notoriously difficult skill to master, and many students who are “caught” plagiarizing aren’t intentionally trying to deceive. Instead, they are simply inexperienced with the writing task. If your field prioritizes direct quotations, show students examples of disciplinary writing with effectively selected, integrated, and cited quotations. Have them practice this skill and be sure to provide feedback.

If you assume your students know fundamental citation skills in your field, tell them that in the syllabus and point them to resources that will help. Here’s an example:

Your writing assignments in this class will often require you to use outside sources, and you should cite those sources using APA style. I am assuming that you are familiar with APA style, but if you need a refresher, take a look at the video tutorials and other useful information at

Use SafeAssign as a Learning Tool
If you opt to build SafeAssign into your course design, focus on using it as a learning tool. To do that, you’ll need to spend some time discovering how SafeAssign works and developing strategies for its use in your class.

When students submit papers to SafeAssign, the software compares their work to a database of existing academic papers and highlights areas of similarity. It then generates an Originality Report, which provides information about these areas. You and your students will need to learn how to interpret the Originality Report, and you should decide in advance how you plan to use this information. SafeAssign’s help pages indicate that “instructors and students need to determine if the matching text is properly referenced. Investigating each match prevents detection errors due to differences in citing standards.” In other words, you can’t simply rely on SafeAssign to redflag plagiarism.

Instead, offer students the opportunity to use the Originality Report to assess and revise their work. Common student errors when working with sources include incorrect paraphrasing and incomplete or missing documentation. SafeAssign works best when used to help students see, correct, and learn from their own errors.

Developing Confident and Responsible Writers in the Digital World
What Is Plagiarism?
Writing Across Borders
Using SafeAssign: The View from the Writing Center

© 2022 Sydney Hamrick ‘21 and Lori Jacobson. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.

Meet the Authors

Sydney Hamrick ‘21

Graduate Consultant

Graduating from William & Mary with degrees in English and Linguistics and coursework in Hispanic Studies, Sydney is currently a 5th-year Masters in Secondary Education student at the W&M School of Education. She worked in the Writing Resources Center during her four undergraduate years at William & Mary and currently serves in the Graduate Writing Resources Center.

Lori Jacobson 

Director, Writing Resources Center

Lori serves as the director of the Writing Resources Center located at Swem Library. Lori’s areas of focus include writing center studies, pedagogy, nineteenth-century American literature and culture, and young adult literature.