A Seasoned Practitioners Use of TurnitinUK

Our week of informal meetings on aspects of blended learning and technology covered the use of TurnitinUK by an experienced user. Nigel Craig ,based in our School of Engineering and Built Environment, outlined his use of TurnitinUK with regards to the submission of MSc projects since 2008. I was going to summarise the main points of the discussion but my colleague Sam Ellis ( @numbereleven) was kind enough to pass on his takeaway from the meeting.

TurnitinUK: some things I’ve never thought about before

 This week, I went to the lunchtime coffee club on plagiarism and TurnitinUK. I have been an inveterate user of TurnitinUK for coming up to ten years, but it turns out that I may have been an inveterate misuser all along. The first big learning point I took away – an obvious one, really – is that TurnitinUk isn’t a plagiarism detection kit… no no no, it’s simply a text matching tool. The subtleties and nuances are still in the eye of the assessor.

And this means that it’s not much use skimming a pile of submissions for the high similarity scores. These won’t tell you all that much. As Nigel Craig pointed out at the lunchtime meeting, a 2% chunk of a 15,000-word dissertation is 300 words – a whole page. Many of us demonstrate the TurnitinUK software to our students, in an effort (I suppose) to demystify the assessment process and to demonstrate to them exactly what constitutes plagiarism.

But something I’ve never done is explain to my students why a similarity score of 40% might be perfectly alright, while a similarity score of 10% might see the student hauled in front of the Head of Department. It’s all a matter of context, of course. So accustomed are we to ‘following the numbers’ that scores of, say, 20% or lower rarely arouse concern. And yet they should. If large chunks have been lifted, with no attempt to cite or acknowledge, then alarm bells should start ringing.

One solution to this problem is to use ‘classic view’. This was my real take-home piece of homework. ‘Classic view’ gives you a breakdown of all the matched text (the stuff you’re used to seeing in the right-hand column), but then puts the entire submitted text beneath, with all matched text colour-coded. Now, in an instant, you can judge how large the chunks of matched texts are, and whether you have a case of plagiarism on your hands. Just scroll down and down. Brilliant.

I still think the best way of avoiding plagiarism is to a) set very clear and simple rules, and keep repeating them, and b) ‘design it out’ at source. My simple rules are that if you use someone’s idea you must credit them, and if you quote someone you must cite them. ‘Designing out’ can be done in a number of ways. I often give students unique (or even hypothetical) case studies to interrogate, which means that the established literature becomes a bit less of a crutch to lean in. I also avoid using words like ‘explain’ and ‘describe’, preferring verbs such as ‘justify’ and ‘analyse’ instead.

A good habit I got into was asking history students to relate their work to personal experience or current events. This seemed to be a good way of encouraging them to take data and information, and turn it into knowledge (and even wisdom!). This approach also had the benefit of developing their skills through the prisms of reflection and employability. And when the writing is personal, the students can’t even copy from one another…

Sam’s views understate the robust approach Nigel takes to his use of TurnitinUK He does a live demonstration to his students of how the software works and explains why he uses it in his assessment practice. A more  controversial point is that he does not allow his postgraduate students to see their originality score at the time of submission. He argues that students at that level should not be plagiarising and so do not need to make a prior submission to get their score. Most participants were surprised to hear this because they allow students the opportunity to submit drafts in order to help them reduce their score or even better improve their academic writing skills. Nigel’s challenge was how was this process supported. The responses varied from students work on the feedback themselves to reduce their score to actually meeting with the member of the module team. There was a concern raised about resource issues about allowing students multiple submissions without some degree of academic intervention.

So in a quick hour, many of us were challenged in our use of TurnitinUK in terms of benefits for both staff and students. Then someone raised the issue of ghost writing and how it could be detected. Just like TurnitinUK, it’s all dependent of academic judgement of the whole student and their work.

GCULead  hopes to use Nigel’s experience in future activity at GCU.

..and another thing!

There has been an issue on standardising on a name for the originality service provider we all know and love. Some people still refer to it as Submit (pre- VLE integration days) , Turnitin, Turnitin UK or even TurntinUK. This post has used the latter because GCU uses the service as an integrated building block within out VLE and it renders as TurnitinUK. TGCUL.


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