Monday, November 14, 2011

Teaching with TurnItIn

Guest Blogger:  Jessica Gullion, PhD, Assistant Visiting Professor, Department of Sociology and Social Work, Texas Woman's University

Most Friday mornings you can find me over at Jupiter House grading memos. My memo assignment has become notorious among my graduate students. They are required to synthesize their weekly readings into a one-page synopsis to be used in class to guide discussion. While many of my undergrads would be thrilled to only write one page, the graduate students have to cover a significant amount of material in that space, and they often struggle with brevity.

One particular morning I sat sipping my chai, a pile of papers on the table in front of me. I picked up one of the memos and started to read. The first paragraph was fantastic. Well written, concise. I knew this would be an easy memo to grade.

The second paragraph was also well written. And it sounded awfully familiar. I recognized each of the sentences. Because I had written them. The entire paragraph was copied verbatim from a paper I’d published a couple of years ago. At the end of the paragraph, I saw my last name in a citation, but there were no quote marks anywhere in the paragraph.

Nor in the paper at all. The third paragraph read the same way. Not ripped off from my work, but from one of the assigned readings. The student included a citation at the end of this paragraph as well, but no notation that the paragraph in full was a direct quote.

The next week, I called the student into my office.

“We have to talk about plagiarism,” I said.

The student looked confused and didn’t say anything.

“When grading your paper, I discovered that you copied entire paragraphs from articles you were assigned to read. You also copied a paragraph from one of my articles.”

The student smiled. “Yeah, I thought it was cool that I found your article.”

Now I was confused. “But you plagiarized it.”

“No I didn’t! I cited everything!” Tears welled in the student’s eyes.

And then we had a lesson on plagiarism.

TWU has policies on how to handle academic dishonesty. I could have given the student a zero on the assignment. I could have reported the student to Student Life. The trouble is, I do not believe this student meant to do anything wrong. In fact, this student thought I would be flattered by the use of my own work.

After that incident, I started using a program through Blackboard called Turnitin to check papers for plagiarism. I’m not on a witch hunt. I use it to help students understand what constitutes plagiarism.

Turnitin generates an Originality Report that both the student and faculty member can view. This report identifies any string of words known by the system to be nonoriginal work. Algorithms are built into the system to account for very short strings and to discount words in quotations. Student work is compared both to internet sites and to work previously submitted to the system. As more instructors use the system, more papers are added to its reference bank. The Originality Report highlights nonoriginal strings and includes a link to the original source. It also generates a percentage of the paper that is not original. I have seen this percentage range from zero to ninety percent (ok, 90% student got an F).

Due to the ease of information collection over the internet, students can cut and paste work together from all sorts of sources. Some cheat knowingly; but some cheat and don’t realize what they are doing is wrong. For them, Turnitin is a good teaching tool.

Turnitin is not foolproof. But it can be used to help students – particularly those who have grown up in a data-rich environment – to understand intellectual property and the proper use of citations and sources.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this post. I like Turnitin, but as you've mentioned, it has its limitations. I like GradeMark even better and am a very recent convert. I'm sure that many, perhaps even most, teachers have dealt with situations similar to your own.