The sincerest form of flattery

Our Teaching & Learning Showcase Series continued yesterday with a session on ‘Sharing good practice in the use of Turnitin’. Turnitin is an online service which allows educators to check students’ work for similarity with other sources as a tool for plagiarism prevention and development of academic writing skills.

Turnitin automatically generates an ‘Originality Report’ with a ‘similarity index’ expressed as a percentage, and links to matched sources, including other students’ work, the internet, and other publications. It’s available at Reading through the University’s VLE Blackboard as well as a web portal.

As Associate Dean Orla Kennedy, who has been chairing these informal lunchtime gatherings this term, pointed out, the event coincidentally took place at the same time as a meeting of SCAM (the University’s aptly named Sub-Committee on Academic Misconduct) but still saw a good turnout of some 20 colleagues from academic and service departments across the University.

Speakers Virginie Ruiz (Systems Engineering), Sara Broad (Institute of Education) and Mary Morrissey (English Literature) are among those leading the use of Turnitin in teaching and learning at the University. Each shared their approaches and experiences, highlighting different aspects and issues surrounding the use of Turnitin, before addressing questions and concerns from colleagues.

Virginie Ruiz demonstrated how Turnitin can be used very effectively to act as a plagiarism deterrent and a great time-saver for staff. Virginie allows students to submit draft versions of their work and to view the Originality Reports generated for their submissions to give them the opportunity to develop their writing skills – up until their final project that is, when their first submission counts.

Students’ ‘tried and tested methods of essay-writing’. Sara says, ‘I let them laugh at this but then quietly acknowledge that maybe they have thought about the possibility.’

Sara Broad’s use of Turnitin very much focuses on encouraging her students in the Institute of Education – future teachers – to reflect on their work and to think like a tutor. During an introductory session, the students have the chance to turn their hand to marking an essay with a similarity index of 63%.

‘[What] they really take to heart is not the squeaky-clean assignment […] that comes up with no hint of plagiarism. They want to see a bad one’, Sara explained. ‘They want to see what it looks like if they get caught out, but they don’t want the experience of being the one that gets caught out. And then they take the moral high ground […] they are nasty markers when it’s another student […].’

Sara’s hacked-up essay satisfyingly returns matches to Wikipedia and Sparknotes, and comes up orange in Turnitin’s traffic light system. ‘For blood and gore, they quite like them in orange […] Orange means you’re in trouble.’

Mary Morrissey piloted the use of Turnitin for English Literature students last year and, alongside Director of Teaching & Learning Julia Waters, has been instrumental in co-ordinating a rollout of Turnitin at School level. Mary has developed some resources for staff and students on setting up Turnitin assignments in Blackboard, submitting essays, and viewing and evaluating Originality Reports.

Mary’s talk highlighted the balance that needs to be struck between policies at University and School level and local practice. She emphasised the need to properly brief staff and students both in terms of how Turnitin works and how Originality Reports are interpreted, but also in terms of University guidelines and regulations, and more practical considerations such as existing office procedures for submissions.

Back in May, the termly meeting of School E-Learning Co-ordinators held here at Reading also focused on ‘The use of Turnitin in Teaching & Learning’. Concerns tended to centre around similar issues, such as using Turnitin for e-submission, anonymous marking, and the tie-in with administrative workflow. The discussions also revealed very contrasting perceptions of Turnitin, either as a ‘plagiarism detector’ or an educative tool, and a multitude of approaches and policies, particularly with regard to allowing students to see and discuss Originality Reports.

Regardless of whether you find yourself in one camp or another, and believe that students plagiarise because they are lazy, unwilling to engage properly with their studies, and bad at managing their time, or perhaps merely inexperienced in academic writing – the emphasis at Reading is on developing students’ study skills. Comprehensive guidance on note-taking, citation and referencing, grammar, punctuation and style is available from the central Study Advice service as well as locally in Schools and departments.

It’s clear there is a real appetite for other ways of supporting students’ skills development, and Turnitin may be able to help staff do this more effectively. As Mary said, ‘Anything that gets them out of SCAM educationally is where we need to put the time.’

Student representatives at a recent Faculty Board of Teaching & Learning meeting were asking for student access to Turnitin, and Sara also reported that her students have requested supplementary access to help them with their final-year projects – so students, too, can see the benefits.

Digitally Ready are supporting a new TLDF-funded project looking at referencing in the context of independent learning, critical thinking and good academic practice entitled ‘What did I do wrong?’. We invite you to take part in an initial survey into the use of Turnitin in your academic School or department. Please return your completed questionnaires to Helen Hathaway or Kim Shahabudin at the Library.

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