Shoulder Angels or Snarling Devils? TurnItIn and First Year Assessment

Two pieces on TurnItIn®, the plagiarism detection software and service, came to my attention this week. The first was an article describing the recent furore over an NYU professor’s blog post that he would no longer be pursuing cheating amongst his undergraduate students. Owing to legal issue surrounding data protection—the post included feedback he had received from former students—the post has now been removed, but archived versions of it continue to exist on various sites. The heart of the matter is that the professor in question felt that he was being punished for his vigilance. A ruthless pursuit of cheaters, he felt, had led to significant reduction in his feedback scores and this had meant a reduction in his annual salary rise.

The second piece I read, Using ‘Grademark’ Electronic Feedback in History, was a case study by Drs Raphael Hallett, Kevin Linch and Simon Hall of the School of History, University of Leeds. Their piece chronicled a three-year trial of the TurnItIn® Grademark system at the University of Leeds and its effect on both the workload of the teaching staff and the perceptions of feedback by the students. The theory behind the system, which works much like Word or Acrobat commenting systems, was that they could provide rapid, legible and permanently reference-able feedback, which would promote greater student engagement with the assessment process. Although the technology was somewhat cumbersome, and did not fully integrate with standard university and departmental procedures, the response from students was overwhelmingly positive. The feedback was felt to be both easy to use and better (or much better) than traditional written feedback.

So, we are left with an angel and devil on our shoulders, whispering of our students’ promise and frailties. I have never used TurnItIn personally, but have seen it detect some astoundingly high rates of what I consider accidental plagiarism by first year students. I am not particularly worried about my feedback ratings, as they do not directly affect my pay increases (at this stage in my career) and my students already consider me one of the most frustratingly harsh markers in the department. Even this second point doesn’t really concern me as I still receive very high feedback and have had several students admit that, even though I gave them their worse marks ever, the feedback which accompanied it ensured much better marks in the future.

Indeed, I am absolutely of the opinion that you should make as many mistakes as possible your first year of university, when the damage can be expunged or at least rectified, rather than skate by on the sympathy of your tutors only to crash and burn later on. I have an innate soft-spot for first years and will usually go out of my way (and office hours) to help them through transitional issues. By second year, they should know better.

So, when I look at TurnItIn, I can’t help but think that this isn’t a case of a devil and an angel but simply two stages of feedback. The system allows for a draft of the essay to be submitted, at which stage students can see their plagiarism score and make corrections before their final submission. If it is accidental plagiarism, this serves the same purpose as marginalia from me, reminding students to cite properly and paraphrase where appropriate. When the paper does arrive in my inbox, many of the cases of bad paraphrasing and referencing will have already been addressed, freeing me to focus my feedback on more substantial issues such as argument and structure. As for those who will use the draft stage to see where they will and won’t be caught, well, there are always a few bad apples, aren’t there?

Whether my students will see TurnItIn as a pair of shoulder angels, as a carrot and stick or as a pair of snarling devils may rely entirely on how I pitch the process in that first seminar.

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