Using Turnitin

Why Use Turnitin?
My experience in my first-year composition (FYC) classes for ESL students indicates that many, perhaps most, students do not understand what constitutes plagiarism. Even after defining it and doing exercises, how to attribute sources properly remains difficult for my students, in part because of language and in part due to conceptual understanding. I still remember three months into one semester a few years back when, after I commented on an example of plagiarism, one student exclaimed, "That's what you mean by plagiarism?!" So, although I haven't used Turnitin much, what follows are my thoughts on how I plan to use Turnitin.

Before Using Turnitin
The main purpose of Turnitin should be a learning tool. Thus, establish an appropriate learning environment for using Turnitin. Rather than a "got'cha" environment, students should understand that Turnitin is a tool to help them see where they need to make changes in their paper, whether in revising or in citing. Generally speaking, don't penalize rough drafts for matches to other documents.

Teach how to use sources appropriately.

  1. Give examples of appropriate and inappropriate use with explanations of the differences.
  2. Have students practice recognizing whether a source is plagiarizing or not.
  3. Have students practice paraphrasing and quoting select passages.

This sequence of tasks helps to move students from a mental understanding of appropriate attribution to the ability to cite sources correctly. It's only a beginning, however. Students may need the entire semester of working and re-working with their papers to make their understanding and skill automatic in practice.

Using Turnitin
Explain to students why you are using Turnitin and how it works. Basically, learning to cite sources appropriately can take time, and Turnitin can help that process. Be sure to include a statement about its use and purpose in the class syllabus. (For a model of such a statement, see Greg Reihman's example.)

Students, rather than the instructor, should submit their papers to Turnitin and get an originality report. If there are problems, whether true or false positive, they can tackle it alone or you can discuss it together. Being able to see possible cases of plagiarism and to discuss actual examples are important for students to build up a contextualized understanding of what constitutes plagiarism and what does not. In those cases technically constituting plagiarism, students' access to turnitin's originality report function lets them see whether their writing needs work in summarizing, paraphrasing, or citing, and where it needs it. Thus, the originality reports can provide a point of departure for discussing what is plagiarism and what isn't, what is effective paraphrase and what isn't, and what must be cited and what doesn't. It also helps teachers to identify students who are having difficulty in learning these distinctions and to provide the extra help they need.

In addition, students can see how they have revised from one draft to the next. As Tracy Morse wrote,

Since retains every submitted paper in its database, it is possible to submit different drafts of the same paper and learn from the plagiarism report generated from how much one draft has changed from the next. The benefit for students is that they can have a quantitative report in the percentage referring to how much of their draft is the same, or "plagiarized" in terms, to their previous draft submitted to the database.

This ability to see changes is helpful because students often feel that they have revised a paper when all they have done is edited it, making a few grammatical or vocabulary changes. Turnitin also has an anonymous peer review system. I haven't used Turnitin in this way (or for revising), but Dennis Jerz comments,

I also find the peer-review feature very useful. Students can trade anonymous peer reviews within the system. I find I have to ask very specific questions, since the system doesn't permit students to cross out a sentence or draw a wavy line under a confusing passage.. the system doesn't really encourage global revisions, but this limitation does force me to decide, for each peer review, what are the specific things I most want students to be looking for when they review each other's work. And that forces me to focus on whether I'm actually teaching those skills to the students.

Much has been claimed about the potential for Turnitin to alienate students. But actually, it has the potential to motivate students. According to self-determination theory, motivation is driven by three needs: autonomy, competence, and social relatedness. Giving autonomy to students is crucial for learning. Ryan and Deci (pdf) write,

teachers who are autonomy supportive (in contrast to controlling) catalyze in their students greater intrinsic motivation, curiosity, and desire for challenge…. Students taught with a more controlling approach not only lose initiative but learn less effectively, especially when learning requires conceptual, creative processing. (p. 71)

Naturally, Turnitin could be used in controlling ways. However, if students (instead of the teacher) are submitting their work to Turnitin and taking responsibility for learning to use sources in an encouraging atmostphere, then their autonomy is being supported. In addition, being able to see these distinctions in originality reports should help them learn to use sources more competently, thus again motivating students as they themselves see their improvement in using sources.

(For more detailed caveats, see Nick Carbone's "Strategies for Teaching with Online Tools" and Sharon Gerald's "Confessions of a User".)

  • Turnitin is a tool, not a teacher. It supports instruction; it does not subsitute for it.
  • Turnitin can give false positives in their originality reports.
  • Turnitin can also give false negatives: It does not find every instance of plagiarism.
  • The teacher must interpret the originality reports. The percentage number provided with an originality report does not necessarily correspond to an amount of plagiarism.
  • Students are learning. Unless clearly indicated otherwise, consider most instances of "plagiarism" detected through Turnitin to be non-intentional and an opportunity to help students better understand how to use sources.

Turnitin, used properly, can be one tool among others, not simply for catching plagiarism, but more importantly for teaching students how to use sources appropriately.

Related articles:
Turnitin and Rhetoric
Turnitin and Intellectual Property
Turnitin Bibliography