Switching sides – using #Turnitin as a student after managing Turnitin as an elearning technologist

This is the first of two posts in which I want to reflect back on my experience as a PGCE student. Naturally, the first thing that springs to mind is my experience of using Turnitin from the other side of the staff-student divide!

As some of you will know, before I started my PGCE training, I promoted and researched the use of elearning technologies with undergraduate science students. A large part of my work revolved around the use of electronic text matching systems for the detection of non-original text (or in plain english, plagiarism detection services like Turnitin).

In the early days of the system, there were some considerable gaps in what might or might not be included in a Turnitin report, such that if a student copied from a peer-reviewed journal (which was effectively behind a pay wall) then it might not be picked up. This lead many staff to initially keep the Turnitin reports for staff viewing only, sharing them with the students only if we had concerns about the authenticity of their work.

As the content of the web grew and Turnitin struck a deal to include access to a wide variety of bibliographic databases, concerns about missing content diminished. However, a new concern arose. If staff gave students access to their Turnitin reports before the submission deadline, would they game the system by repeatedly resubmitting and changing their work so that the reports came up clear of copying?

More universities are now opening up access to Turnitin for students for a variety of different reasons and having had the unusual experience of turning from gamekeeper to poacher myself, I would like to argue that the system should be made open to students.

There were safeguards put in place to stop repeated submission, working with a thesaurus to rephrase offending sections of an essay. I am guessing that these still apply (for example resubmission cannot occur within a 24 hour period and must be before the deadline) and having been part of the student body, I am sure that those students who wanted to cheat the system would not be organised enough to submit their work several days before the deadline.

The main concern amongst my fellow students was ‘accidental’ plagiarism. Not being careful when taking notes, and not recording sources, so that when you return to your work you incorporate sentences or phrases that are directly copied from another source. Whilst I can hear the academic argument echoing loud (if you are not taking notes properly, then…) but I could sympathise with their worries at the time. As a student there is a still a great deal of power playing with the academic in the position of control, and yet, we as students are asked to trust not only the academic’s judgement in marking our work, but a third party’s electronic meddling with our work in a black box of uncertain powers. I knew of several students who had suggested the use of other plagiarism detection systems that work outside the university boundaries and I tried to put them off using them as best I could (see Do your students use Viper (scanmyessay.com) to check their essays? They should beware!). I have to admit I was really very nervous submitting my first piece of work. Even though I had completed a PhD, written published papers and carried out research on Turnitin, there was still a part of me thought that I would slip up somehow and be caught be out. I can only imagine what it was like for those students that had come straight from university or had not written academically for many years.

Right at the beginning of the PGCE course we had an opportunity to write a short (500 words) formative piece of work to judge the standard and quality of our writing. This was submitted to Turnitin. This would have been an ideal opportunity for us to have access to Turnitin, either prior to or after the deadline. Having access at this formative stage would have reassured those that were doing things right and shown those that weren’t the error of their ways in glorious technicolour. As Jude Carroll has wisely said (and here I paraphrase!), “student don’t think they plagiarise until they see how ‘their’ words match someone else’s“.

I’ve provided information to the course staff about how to set up the assignments next year so that students can have access to the reports. The students may need to some training or information on how to interpret the reports, but there is a wealth of information online that may assist them.

There are times when I have really not enjoyed the feeling of powerlessness that students often have, particularly on a one year course, where there is little opportunity for us to enact change or influence the teaching we receive. I hope that by blogging my experiences, some of what I have learned can be passed on and be useful to others.


4 thoughts on “Switching sides – using #Turnitin as a student after managing Turnitin as an elearning technologist”

  1. Hi Jo. This is a lovely and well-balanced argument for allowing student access to originality reports. Thanks for reflecting on the experience. I will point staff members to this.

    While I agree that it can be helpful for students to see their own originality reports, I do believe that they need to have support in interpreting the results. I especially like your suggestion of using the initial formative piece of writing as an opportunity to use Turnitin, also in a formative way.


  2. This is very interesting, for me, in two regards. I’m doing a Postgraduate Certificate in Academic Practice and it is interesting switching from being a teacher to being a learner; I reflected on this in one of my reflexive assignments here: http://drpetermatthews.blogspot.co.uk/2012/01/reflections-on-teaching-practice.html

    Also, it is always interesting putting your own stuff through Turnitin. Out of idle curiosity I once put one of my own academic papers through Turnitin, pre-publication, and forgot to tick the boxes to exclude bibilographic data and small matches. My originality result was well within the yellow/orange category and if it had been a students’ work I would have checked the originality report.

    In teaching, I find Turnitin useful for doing what I would have done previously on Google – picking up clear plagiarism (large sections of text dumped into a document). These are usually blindingly obvious because of changes in writing style and, often, different formatting. It’s just a tool really…

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