While Plagiarism Detection Software (PDS) – such as Turnitin – has proven to be a useful tool in my classes for identifying clear violations of academic integrity, an unexpected side effect of using the integrated functions within Canvas has been an increase in student anxiety. While my understanding of the color-coded flags and the percentages presented in Canvas provide me with a quick visual way to identify student papers with potential issues; for students, those numbers are like flashing warning signs of wrongdoing, especially when the numbers are above 40-50%.

I learned very quickly that students didn’t understand what the numbers meant, nor how to actually read their Turnitin report. Instead, students would see the high percentage and immediately send a panicked e-mail that expressed concern they would be accused of plagiarism and asked what they needed to do (e.g. offering proof that they did not plagiarize, offering to redo the assignment). But what really stood out about the e-mails was that students clearly did not understand what Turnitin was telling them, or that even proper citation could lead to a high similarity percentage.

Possible Solutions

In response to these e-mails I began to brainstorm ways to use the Turnitin Report as a teaching tool. This resulted in three concrete steps I take when using PDS in the online classroom:

  1. I include an example of a Turnitin Report with the grading rubric and instructions for assignments where students tend to need a high number of outside sources. These examples were designed to help students identify what to look for in the report for those specific assignments, in terms of what to ignore and what not to ignore.
  2. For students who have a high percentage of similarity on an assignment, I share the report along with their grade, pointing out areas of concern within the report or emphasizing why there was no concern.
  3. For students who struggle with citing, I include their Turnitin report and indicate where they correctly cited sources and when they incorrectly used a source without proper attribution.

While these initial efforts have shown signs of alleviating the fears of most students, two of them are after the fact methods that do not eliminate that initial fear response and rash of panicky e-mails. As much as I would like to believe that students review the example Turnitin report that I include with the assignment, course analytics suggest few students access these example files. With this in mind, I’m planning to create a separate “How to Read Your Report” module or video as a required and graded course activity. It is hoped that this required module will increase student awareness and preparation once they begin their assignments; and decrease anxiety when they are presented with their Turnitin percentages and reports.

Final Suggestions

While using PDS within an online class can lead to unintended negative reactions from students, it is not suggested that faculty not use the system. In addition to the steps above, other methods for easing some of the growing pains that may come with using PDS include:

  • Offering students a “no questions asked” option to resubmit the assignment. If a student sees their assignment flagged as being highly similar, review it, and realize that they did not properly attribute sources to support their work, they can make changes and resubmit the assignment without needing to contact the instructor. As long as the assignment is turned in on time, I simply grade the final submitted file and ignore the original submission. This technique has the added benefit of encouraging students to not wait until the last minute to submit their work.
  • Including PDS reports with grade comments for all students on all assignments, regardless of whether there are concerns with their similarity percentage or not. This works to normalize students looking at the report and also allows the instructor to encourage proper attribution of outside work by all students.
  • Teaching plagiarism avoidance OR teaching a specific citation method (e.g. APA, MLA, etc.), not both. You can either focus on using PDS as a tool to help students understand how their work may or may not represent proper paraphrasing, summarizing, or quoting; or you can teach students how to properly cite using a specific citation method. But trying to do both can be confusing for students.

Just remember, Turnitin and other Plagiarism Detection Software are tools. The benefits of those tools come from proper application by the instructor.