Methods to counter academic misconduct have been at the forefront of many department meetings, discussion groups and committees and the most that comes out of them seems to be disagreement. Let us here focus on plagiarism, a key issue that concerns many faculty and department heads. One divide is the use of tools, such as Turnitin to minimize plagiarism and promote academic integrity, or at least hamper students’ ability to avoid plagiarizing.
There are two sides (there are more sides but let us stick with the main two) to the argument: One, students “wash” their written work through Turnitin until it doesn’t detect any similarities. And two, paraphrasing is a very difficult skill and the consequences of plagiarism can be so severe (in reality or in the students’ mind) that students need a tool that gives them peace-of-mind that what they hand in will not bring them up for an academic misconduct hearing.
Both sides are valid with the first argument looking at Turnitin usage as “washing” writing through it. Students are still learning how to paraphrase, and it is a very difficult skill to do. We as instructors may have forgotten that because we have mastered that skill and it seems so effortless. Exasperating the problem is that students are not being formally taught how to paraphrase, or it has been assumed that paraphrasing has been formally taught in high school or in other university classes. On this side of the argument Turnitin would be very beneficial for students’ learning because they don’t have the skills to paraphrase and need one-to-one assistance that isn’t available in large classrooms.
Imagine a trapeze artist trying to master the art. Do they just jump off the platform and hope all will go well and they won’t fall to their death? Of course not. They use safety ropes that correct their posture and right their wrongs. These safety ropes give them peace of mind, so they are willing to take that leap. And doing so with no stress allows them to learn from their mistakes with no negative repercussions. This is when learning really starts to happen and what tools like Turnitin provide, safety ropes.
Akin to Turnitin, I teach my students to use Microsoft Word’s referencing tool until they can do it on their own. Those that do use it see what good referencing looks like and begin to do it on their own. They can use the tool to save time. They can use the tool to give them a head start in referencing and then correct the errors. Those students who so adopt the MS Word referencing tool get full marks because they have used technology to help them create an accurate works cited section. Those who do not use it provide only copy and pasted hyperlinks and have very little idea what a works cited section should even look like. This is the same as Turnitin, it is a tool that helps students see that they are on the right track and that they can rest easy handing in their assignment. This is a tool to use while they learn to paraphrase and not stress out days after handing in an assignment wondering if it will be red flagged because it was one of their first attempts at writing an academic paper.
The second side to the Turnitin-usage debate is just give the tool to the students to use. Many reasons why have been listed above, plus students who do request Turnitin are those who have demonstrated the highest levels of academic integrity to begin with and I feel do not require it. For every student it reduces stress and anxiety, which is critical in these COVID times. On the first day of class instructors emphasize the severe consequences of plagiarism. Students overemphasize the negative repercussions of an academic black mark, which leads to added stress when handing in any written work. But how much paraphrasing training do students get? As an instructor, one option is to go through everyone’s paper before submission and point out potential plagiarism and missing citations, which would take additional weeks scouring the internet. Or, we can simply offer Turnitin. My former students ask me for additional dropboxes so they can check their work before handing it in to instructors who do not supply them with Turnitin. Again, the students who make this request are my A students who demonstrate the highest levels of academic integrity.
Being a Learning Designer, I need to hear both sides of the argument. Being an instructor, I need to take a side that best promotes learning in my classroom. I take the side of my students who request Turnitin and it has greatly helped them improve their writing and citing skills. Passages that are troublesome to paraphrase we analyse is class as a learning opportunity. When my students request a tool that demonstrates effective learning and reduces their anxiety why should I not offer it to them? You can ask the students whose instructors do not provide them with Turnitin, but they won’t know why it is not being offered in their class. They seem to never get a straight answer. If in doubt, offer it to students so at least your A students who do not need to use it but will be the ones who do actively use is can sleep better at night.