Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Introducing Students to Turnitin's Originality Check as a Learning Tool

Turnitin is kind of an odd learning technology for me because I have not used it as an instructor but I have been subjected to it as a student. The university I attend requires instructors to submit at least one paper by each student in each class to Turnitin. The papers I've written have ranged from 0-40% unoriginal. The 40% result alarmed me but it was actually ok because my instructor submitted my whole paper, including the standard cover page that all students use, rather than just copying out the text I wrote.  Add in my references being found unoriginal, a few quotes, and a couple of small coincidental matches, and it looks kind of bad although no plagiarism was occurring. When I asked my instructor if this was ok, he basically said "sure, don't worry about it."  Huh?

It doesn't have to be like this! The writing instructor who does the Turnitin best practices webinars uses Turnitin as a learning tool. She starts out the semester letting her students submit drafts and revise based on the originality and grammar report. By the end of the semester, she expects the students to have learned from their experience and weans them off of submitting drafts to Turnitin and revising. 

I have also heard of instructors who will tell students to write a bad paper and plagiarize away or paraphrase closely to see what happens when it's submitted to Turnitin. Let's learn how this thing works, because understanding it can sort of trick people into writing and citing better. (If you use Turnitin this way, you can set it to not submit these papers to the Turnitin repository.) 

I would recommend for instructors to try it out themselves as well. I thought it was fascinating to submit some of my own papers when I got access to Turnitin through work. We can create fake student accounts so instructors can get the full experience of submitting and getting the report. I recommend not saving these to the Turnitin repository.

If you want to give the students the benefit of the doubt, you can explain Turnitin as a self-check to ensure there has been no unintentional plagiarism. The writing experts at UWEC say that plagiarism really isn't that prevalent and most plagiarism is unintentional due to poor citing or paraphrasing too closely. Those students can be helped! 

Youmans (2011) found the threat of Turnitin didn't eliminate plagiarism in his classes - 3 students still clearly plagiarized despite being told Turnitin would be used. He hypothesized that these students were desperate at the last minute and hoped their plagiarism wouldn't be found. My hypothesis is that if the students understood Turnitin better, they might have been less confident they'd get away with it. Also, the students who had unintentionally plagiarized might have learned from Turnitin if they were allowed to submit a draft. 

Here's how to set up a dropbox so students can re-submit and see their results:
  • Go into "Edit Other Options in a New Window" at the bottom of the D2L dropbox properties page.
  • Click on "Optional Settings."
  • Where it says "Generate Originality Reports for student submissions" choose "immediately (can overwrite originality reports until due date)".
  • Ensure that students are able to see the reports.
My opinion is that, minimally, instructors should allow students to see their originality reports, even if they don't allow students to re-submit.  This gives students the opportunity to learn from the service and avoids them feeling as if their paper is being used for something without their involvement. 

So, I'm making some pretty positive assumptions about students' intentions and the capabilities of Turnitin in this post. I want to remind you that Turnitin can't always find every instance of matching text and it does not replace an instructor's intuition or old fashioned ways of identifying plagiarism. It's still important to use unique assignment prompts, collect multiple samples of writing for comparison, and break up a big paper into smaller assignments when possible. My next post will explore the loopholes, ways students can cheat Turnitin, and downfalls. Hopefully I don't need to come back and revise this post after fully researching that! 

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

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