When your students receive high Turnitin similarity scores, are they confused and frightened? Do you find the Originality reports difficult to interpret? 

Plagiarism is recognised as a serious problem at universities, so using Turnitin is sometimes seen as the one-stop solution to stop copy-and-paste practices and detect students who have cheated. 

Yet students are often unsure of how to cite and reference and are unfamiliar with what is and isn’t permissible in terms of drawing from sources. Over recent years, students have developed learning strategies that are heavily reliant on search engines, and some regard the act of research as cutting and pasting from different sources. So how do we plug the gap between what we expect in terms of academic integrity and literacy practices and what skills students have?

Turnitin can be used as part of the answer, because it can be set up to provide feedback that can help students develop writing and paraphrasing skills. Allowing students to see Originality Reports before submitting helps them to understand acceptable practices and to understand that there’s more to a Turnitin report than the similarity percentage score. 

Interpreting the Turnitin Originality Report 

One misconception about Turnitin is that reports can be taken on face value. A high similarity score can cause students stress and anxiety, when in fact some high similarity scores do not indicate a problem with plagiarism (Bretag & Mahmud, 2009; Emerson, Rees, & MacKay, 2005). The following guidelines can help them interpret the score:  

  • A report can reach a high similarity percentage but comprises the sum of a multitude of similarity percentages of 1-2%, often from other student papers – this is not a problem. 
  • Text matches of less than 5-10% from any one source are often not problematic; rather they should alert students to check that attribution and paraphrasing have been done correctly. 

To get more meaningful scores,  make sure you ‘exclude Bibliography, Quoted material and Small matches’ when setting up Turnitin (step 22 in the staff instructions at Turnitin: Creating and managing assignments using Turnitin). Note that some staff do prefer to include Quoted material to alert students to excessive use of direct quotes. 

Bretag and Mahmud (2009) provide a helpful flow-chart for determining plagiarism, as well as  the text they used to instruct students about using a similarity report to check their own writing. 

Setting up Turnitin as a formative feedback tool 

“I think students appreciate the trust it demonstrates when you use Turnitin as a learning tool. It allows them to work through their written pieces in iterations and keep a check on where and how they are referencing. Like anything, getting better and faster at referencing takes time and practice. It’s about thinking through things like ‘have I used this quote properly?’ and ‘is this paraphrased well enough, or do I need to do more work on it?’”.

– Dr Sarah Bankins, convenor of BUS651

Some lecturers worry that students will just tweak their writing until Turnitin can no longer identify plagiarism. But this ‘tweaking’ can help students improve paraphrasing practice, as they can see that chunks of copying and pasting are where high similarity percentages occur. Poor paraphrasing practices are identified: they can see that changing 50% of a sentence is inadequate paraphrasing (Parkhurst, 2006) and that simply substituting a synonym every few words is inadequate. This is Turnitin’s strength: it helps students to identify poor paraphrasing and it is this cause of plagiarism that access to Originality Reports most improves (Rolfe, 2011).

How to do the set up

Set-up instructions are provided at Macquarie University’s Turnitin and Feedback Studio. Specifically, under Turnitin: Creating and managing assignments using Turnitin, do the following: 

  • In Step 11, ‘Assign Display Originality Reports to Students’, select Yes 
  • In Step 19, select Generate reports immediately (resubmissions are allowed until due date).This allows students to resubmit as often as they like until the assignment due to date to allow for self-review. 
  • In Step 22, set exclusions to provide meaningful reports. 

Turnitin as a formative feedback tool works best in a pedagogic framework

Turnitin can’t teach students the principles of academic integrity or teach them how to cite and reference effectively. While it can be a valuable tool, its use needs to be framed by lecturer or tutor explanations, workshops, or use of academic integrity modules. 

A possible framework to use:

  1. Ask students to complete Macquarie’sAcademic Integrity Module, if they haven’t already (in some faculties it is already compulsory for students in first-year units). 
  2. In a tutorial, show a paragraph from an example assignment displaying good citation and referencing practice, remembering that students often worry about 
    • what they should cite 
    • how many citations they should have (can I have too many?) 
    • whether a citation at the end of a paragraph pertains to the whole paragraph (no!) 
  3. Showing good examples of whole papers can be very helpful. The Examples section in StudyWISEmight help. 
  4. Explain what referencing system you are using and where to find guides – they should know how to get to the Library’s page on Referencingand how to use a guide 
  5. Point them to resources on paraphrasing in StudyWISEand to referencing in StudyWISE. There are interactive presentations or modules on: 
  6. Encourage students to talk to a librarian, a Learning Adviser or a WriteWISE Leader on the Info Desk in the Library (see Getting Help with Your Assignment).

Providing individual, meaningful feedback on student writing is extremely time-consuming, as we all know. Using Turnitin in this way can help students to pinpoint for themselves the areas in which their writing needs improvement, so it fosters academic literacy and integrity – while giving them an experience in autonomous learning.

See Related article by Amanda Parker: Turnitin: What percentage is the cut off for plagiarism?

The Learning Skills team works with academic staff to design and develop learning resources and activities that can be embedded within the curriculum to help students become better academic writers and better understand the principles of academic integrity. Email learningskills@mq.edu.au with any questions or to find out more.

Posted by Robyn Westcott

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