A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico
Feb 14, 2008 Volume 38 / Number 4


Using Turnitin as a Tool for Student Learning

I am enthusiastic about the anti-plagiarism software Turnitin. I use it as a tool for student learning and I think it is something more faculty would use in that way if they knew about it. For both students and faculty, Turnitin is distinguished by its ease of use. With the advent of WebCT/Vista, Turnitin can be linked from your course homepage, and students upload their papers themselves.

The primary reason I chose to use Turnitin is because of my strong commitment to the value of “full dress research papers” in my courses. I realize that despite my written and oral warnings about academic dishonesty, some students will still try to cheat. While Turnitin is not a universal solution for cheating, it is a great step in the right direction.

When I first began to use Turnitin, some of my students were already familiar with it. But they all reported that other faculty used Turnitin without giving students access to their own originality report. If your goal is simply to catch cases of plagiarism, using Turnitin in this way certainly works.

I use Turnitin differently—in a way that reflects my teaching philosophy without having to become “sheriff.”  In addition to deterring cheating (isn’t that more important in the first place than catching cheaters?), I have made my students partners in policing their own work, and in this way Turnitin becomes a tool of student learning. I permit my students to see Turnitin’s report before the paper is due in order to correct any problems of quotation, punctuation, or footnoting. If the paper is, in fact, plagiarized, they don’t have enough time to write a quality paper, and their grade reflects it.

Students soon become minutely concerned with what Turnitin’s percentage score means in its report. For Turnitin, zero percent means there is no overlap between a paper and any other. One hundred percent means there is a total case of plagiarism. I have found that the scores I prefer range between 20 and 35 percent. Rather than plagiarism, these scores usually confirm that this is a robust research paper with substantial use of quotations, footnotes, and bibliography. It is these two things—footnotes and bibliography—which most inflate Turnitin’s score. A very low score indicates a paper with few footnotes and references. A very high score indicates a “cut and paste” job which, even if footnoted, is unacceptable to me. The highest score I have ever seen is 85 percent in a paper in which Turnitin flagged the entire first two pages in red, indicating they came from other sources. Yet, the student had footnoted those pages faithfully and persistently throughout. For me, this was less a case of deliberate plagiarism than one of a student who had no idea how to write a research paper and use sources properly.

What has been my experience with Turnitin? In truth, the only cases of cheating I have found using Turnitin have been students who tried to recycle a term paper they have used for another class. In the era of Turnitin, this is a far more common form of cheating than purchasing a term paper. Students can recycle a paper if they know it was not submitted previously to Turnitin. In my own “micro intellectual community,” the ideal solution would be for every faculty member to require students to use Turnitin. Once uploaded to Turnitin, a paper can never be used again.

The problem of cheating is not going to go away. This is an intellectual arms race in which some few students will continue to try to find ways to game the system and avoid legitimate academic work. Until we have a serious campus honor code, including notations for cheating on student transcripts, the problem will continue. For now, while Turnitin can’t cure all forms of cheating, it is an impressive tool that moves us in the right direction.

Turnitin has become a valued tool for me. It is one that is consistent with my own intellectual values and philosophy of teaching. It is also a tool for engaging my students in a personal dialogue about responsibility and academic integrity.

Jim Jacob is professor of Political Science and International Relations, and former dean of the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences.