Turnitin as a formative feedback tool

 EAP, Teacher Development  Comments Off on Turnitin as a formative feedback tool
Sep 262013


Light Painting — by Kolossos (Own Work)

When I was a Master’s student at the university, Turnitin® was used in one course as a plagiarism detection tool. We had to submit our assignment via Blackboard, and it was automatically checked by Turnitin. At the end of the process, I was provided with an “originality” report that showed me the percentage of potentially plagiarised text (0% … phew!).

How I used it with my students

Last year, I read an article on how some teachers had used Turnitin in a university EAP course. I was eager to try it out myself. So, I was very happy that we had access to Turnitin for the first time in our course this year.

When I introduced Turnitin to my students and told them we would be using it, they looked very apprehensive; and later, in the computer lab, some were very nervous about the result for their essay even if few would have serious plagiarism issues reported as I knew from looking at their previous drafts. This is possibly an indication that they are not always aware about issues of insufficient referencing and paraphrasing in their essays and think they might have plagiarised unintentionally.

In the teacher’s meeting, we had agreed that we would use Turnitin to give students formative feedback. So, in the tutorial session following the submission of the drafts to Turnitin, I sat down with each students individually and we examined the report together.

Initially, some students’ report showed a high percentage of plagiarised text, but this figure was not very indicative. We had to use the filter to exclude the bibliography and exclude a set number of words in a string that we wanted to exclude (4-5). The latter is useful when a student has used many typical set phrases such as “based on these results, it can be concluded that…” or “The results of this study show that…” Quotations that were placed correctly between quotation marks could also be excluded. Once the filter was applied, the percentage went down considerably.

However, even now, the result could not be taken as is and needed further inspection. So, together with the student, we scrolled through the text and stopped whenever Turnitin indicated a possible plagiarised or insufficiently paraphrased section and decided whether it was really problematic or not, and talked about how to remedy it.** I sent all reports to the students via email so that they could look at their analysed text again and try to improve their drafts before submitting the final versions.** Similar procedures were used by Barrett & Malcom (2006) and Davis and Carroll (2009).

After the course and my initial experience, I felt I needed to read up on this topic a bit more. Here’s a brief summary of my readings:

Why do students plagiarise?

There are many reasons why students plagiarise, some of which are that:

Many students now use the Internet to do research. There is so much information readily available and  technology makes it easy to copy and paste text into their essays (Sagave, 2004).

Some students, particularly international students, plagiarise unintentionally, due to lack of knowledge how to reference correctly, inadequate language to paraphrase or summarise, or cultural difference in attitudes to citing (Wette, 2010; Barrett and Malcom, 2006; Lake, 2004).

How to help students

Just telling students about plagiarism and showing them how to cite is not enough. Advice should be personalised. Students become more aware of the problem when it is applied to their own assessed writing (Barrett & Malcom, 2006). Telling students that their work will be submitted to a plagiarism detection software can be a deterrent  (Barrett & Malcom, 2006, Sagave, 2004) when it comes to intentional plagiarism, but it will not help students who have problems with referencing and paraphrasing. This is why

Using the tool on its own, without adopting a range of measures to ensure a holistic and supportive institutional framework, is not good practice and could threaten both students’ engagement with their learning and their relationship with the institution. (Carroll, 2005: 8)

Hyland (2001) suggests that oral feedback might be clearer and more helpful to students than written feedback when discussing plagiarism issues and Gardner (2004 in Davis and Carrol, 2009) argues that spoken feedback is better suited for formative purposes.

Davis and Carroll (2009) report that “tutorial feedback appeared to have a positive effect on students’ understanding of academic integrity reflected in improved drafts” in their study and so Turnitin could be used as one means to teach students about plagiarism, how to cite and paraphrase correctly, and also to highlight over-reliance on few sources.

So, the oral formative feedback approach we have taken in our course was the right way to go about using Turnitin with our international students.

How Turnitin can help teachers

As it is a serious offense, teachers are often reluctant to directly accuse students of plagiarising (Hyland, 2001). But when they are presented with the colour-coded originality report, they cannot deny it (Barrett & Malcom, 2006).

Previously, when I came across a sentence or paragraph in a student’s work that I thought could have been copied from a source, I would copy the passage into Google and search for it. This was often effective but time-consuming. Also, the moment when students substituted some of the words, this approach did not always work.

Turnitin is better at identifying copied text that has gaps or in which some words have been replaced by synonyms (Davis & Carroll, 2009). It is also much faster in checking a text than the “Google approach”.


Automatic results of Turnitin (and I assume other such software) can only show possible plagiarism so teachers and students need to inspect the results, apply filters (as described above) and discuss problematic sections to make the tool really useful as a means to educate students (Barnett and Malcom, 2006). This can, however, become very time-consuming (Sagave, 2004).

There is also the danger that students who are allowed to see their reports and resubmit their drafts to Turnitin, can learn, with time, how to manipulate copied text so that Turnitin does not flag it as possible plagiarism anymore (Davis and Carroll, 2009).

Another issue is with copyright and privacy. Particularly postgrad students seem to be averse to submitting their work to Turnitin because the software adds each submitted work to their database (Savage, 2004).

One problem I had read about related to the previous point was that one can submit student work only once because when resubmitted it would all show up as plagiarised as the text was added to the Turnitin’s database. However, we found out that this was not the case automatically. When my students resubmitted their work, Turnitin showed the new result with a lower percentage of copied text.

A more serious problem is that Turnitin apparently only has access to websites but not to electronic or printed books (Sagave, 2004), which would limit its usability considerably.


Personally, I liked using Turnitin with my students as a formative feedback tool besides other ways of helping them learn about plagiarism  and referencing. As always there are limits to what a tool can do on its own. This is where the teacher’s experience and pedagogical knowledge comes into play. A pedagogical sound method of using Turnitin is to provide students with individual formative feedback using the originality report (Davis & Caroll, 2000) rather than using it for a ‘catch-and-punish’ approach (Carroll, 2005).

Other resources

Turnitin offers some information on how to best use the software on their website. There are also links to webinars and a link to this plagiarism website, which might be useful in class.

UPDATE (2015)

** This year (2015) we were informed that it is against the University’s Turnitin policy to actually show/send students their reports. I assume this is because they might learn how to change sentences with issues so that Turnitin doesn’t recognise them as plagiarised anymore.



Barrett, R., & Malcolm, J. (2006). Embedding plagiarism education in the assessment process. International Journal for Educational Integrity, 2(1), 38-45. Available at: http://www.ojs.unisa.edu.au/index.php/IJEI/article/view/23/18 [Accessed 1 September 2013]

Carroll, J. (2005). Available at: http://www.jisc.ac.uk/uploaded_documents/plagFinal.pdf [Accessed 31 August 2013]

Davis, M. and Carroll, J. (2009) Formative feedback within plagiarism education: Is there a role for text-matching software? International Journal for Educational Integrity, 5(2), 58–70. Available at: http://www.ojs.unisa.edu.au/index.php/IJEI/article/view/614/471 [Accessed 17 Septermer 2013]

Hyland, F. (2001). Dealing with plagiarism when giving feedback. ELT Journal, 55(4)

October, 375–381.

Lake, J. (2004). EAP writing: the Chinese challenge; new Ideas on Plagiarism. Humanising Language Teaching, 6(1), online. Available at: http://www.hltmag.co.uk/jan04/mart4.htm [Accessed 20 September 2013]

Savage, Sh. (2004). Staff and Student Responses to a Trial of Turnitin Plagiarism Detection Software. Proceedings of the Australian Universities Quality Forum 2004, 150-155. Available at: http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi= [Accessed 20 September 2013]

Wette, R. (2010). Evaluating student learning in a university-level EAP unit on writing using sources. Journal of Second Language Writing, 19, 158–177.