From stick to carrot – using Turnitin to help improve students’ writing

Assessment, E-Learning, Literacy & Writing skills, Plagiarism


Billy Brick
Coventry University


Turnitin is an electronic plagiarism detection system, available for use in UK HE through the JISC. This case study looks at how Turnitin works within a VLE (WebCT/Vista) and demonstates how it can be set up as a pre-submission checking tool for students.  This enables them to submit their coursework prior to their deadlines and to receive a report from Turnitin analysing how effectively they have referenced their essays.  Students then have the opportunity to redraft their writing and resubmit it.

Turnitin was introduced across all faculties at Coventry University in 2006/07 for final submissions of essays resulting in a large increase in plagiarism referrals as students’ essays were subjected to a previously unprecedented degree of scrutiny.  Though the software was used extensively in the 06/07 academic year it was used solely as a punitive tool.  It was only during the 07/08 academic year that an attempt was made to utilise the advanced settings within Turnitin to allow students’ to use the tool to help improve their writing.

Background context

Turnitin is a web-based plagiarism detection product that scans the internet for current and archived pages, previously submitted students’ papers and commercial databases of commercial journals and periodicals.  In addition, the software will identify whether students have copied from the same sources at different universities.  Before its launch tutors could use Google to check suspected cases of plagiarism, but this was extremely time consuming and relied on tutors spotting potential cases.  Turnitin has moved the goalposts as whole batches of coursework can now be checked with just one click.

Within the Faculty of Business, Environment and Society all students are issued with a Turnitin, coursework and plagiarism hand-out which explains how the software works and what steps will be taken against those found in breach of them.  The guidelines explain how plagiarism is defined, explain how the colour coded scoring system works (see Figure 1), some of its anomalies and what action will be taken if a student is found to be plagiarising.  Despite the work of Race (2001) and Caroll (2002) suggesting alternative ways of assessing students and designing plagiarism-unfriendly tasks, plagiarism continues to be a problem in Higher Education, illustrated by  the widespread adoption of Turnitin across the sector.

Figure 1 Initial Turnitin report

Figure 1 Initial Turnitin report

There are various reasons for this, not least of which is the existence of so called paper-mill sites or cheat sites which are widespread and operate in various different ways ranging from cheap generic essay banks to sites offering tailor-made commissioned essays.  This option is obviously considerably more expensive and only available to wealthy students.  Those opting for this ghost writing or subcontracting option are unlikely to be detected, assuming the work they pay for is indeed original.  An extensive list of these sites can be found at [no longer available].  Most of these sites carry disclaimers such as, “the intended purpose of our example of college papers is that they be used as study aids or models of what a good college paper should look like”, but the operators of these sites demonstrate little evidence of ensuring that they are not passed off as authentic.  More devious students may adopt another strategy to buck the system which could be particularly effective in large groups whereby the student submits any non-plagiarised text through Turnitin generating a low score, and then a paper copy of a plagiarised text for the tutor to mark.  Unless the tutor checks all electronic entries against the paper copies this trick could easily escape detection.

There are also several practical difficulties using Turnitin in particular with final year direct entry international students who may be unfamiliar with the software and UK academic conventions.  These include, difficulties following instructions and coursework mailed to university or VLE e-mail addresses, or submitting a paper copy but not a digital one.  These problems can be overcome by manually adding their submissions but this can be time-consuming.  To ensure a level playing field all students must submit a digital copy.  Students who fail to do this have to be chased up by the tutor which, again, is time-consuming.

Activities / Practice

The group of students I chose for this case study were taking a module called Language and Society in Britain since the 1960s. Although the course was open to both native and non-native speakers, the overwhelming majority were direct entry final year European Socrates/Erasmus students who had just arrived in the UK to study English modules, predominantly at level 3.  As such they were largely unaware of UK academic conventions, and only 3 students from the 14 who gave feedback had even heard of the software prior to their arrival in the UK.  Due to this I set up an assessment using Turnitin which allowed students to make as many submissions as they wanted to prior to the submission date so that they could submit their draft essays and be given some feedback about their writing and how Turnitin would grade it in terms of plagiarism. However, feedback from students suggests that Turnitin restricts the number of submissions any student can make to one every 24 hours.

Setting up the assignment is easy to do within the advanced assignment options (see Figure 2).

Figure 2 Setting the assignment

Figure 2 Setting the assignment

The drop down menu then allows you to set up Turnitin to allow students to overwrite their previous work and to see originality reports similar to the report shown in Figure 3.  However, their essays are only added to the student paper database when the paper is finally submitted for assessment.

Figure 3 Detailed Turnitin report

Figure 3 Detailed Turnitin report

Students were able to receive feedback similar to that in Figure 3 and redraft their coursework according to the feedback provided by Turnitin.  The software colour codes sections of the essay according to which website or university the work is identical to and also indicates what percentage of the essay is from this source i.e if you were to submit a whole article from, for example, the Guardian newpaper, Turnitin would state “100% match”. As the example above illustrates, direct links to inappropriate sites such as and are picked up by the software.  Turnitin reports can also be fine-tuned to include or exclude bibliographies and quoted sources, which is a significant feature as the score can change dramatically by altering these settings.

Students were asked whether the draft Turnitin feature had helped improve their writing and the responses were generally positive.  Here are some example comments:

  • “I put in my draft version to see how it rated my essay and then I changed it slightly“
  • “Basically, I used it in order to make sure that I had not copied anything
  • “Yes, it helped me to convince myself that it is better to arrange one’s own thoughts rather than copy them and make them seem as your own”
  • “It was very useful to know how to quote properly in order to avoid plagiarism, as well as helping us with our improvement on academic style writing”
  • “I wrote my essay and then checked it through Turnitin which was useful because sometimes you forget quotation marks and Turnitin reminded me of the missing ones.  However I was confused sometimes because it showed plagiarism and web pages I have not visited while searching for resources”

Student responses to whether Turnitin could be improved included complaints about the time it takes to receive a report, which can be as long as 24 hours.  Other student responses included:

  • “I don’t have any idea just now but Turnitin is great, I wish we could have this program in France”
  • “It could be useful if students could use it whenever they want during the process of the writing of an essay”
  • “I think it is very effective so as to avoid plagiarism.  It does highlight those sentences or paragraphs that may be problematic, so you get to know what needs to be rewritten.  I did find it very useful and cannot think of any improvements right now”


Student feedback on the project was extremely positive.  Over two thirds of the class took advantage of the draft submission facility and some students even submitted courseworks from other modules.  This had led us to consider providing the facility on the course web so that students can submit drafts of their courseworks without being reliant on module tutors activating the facility on individual webs.

Another idea that has emerged is to build a written activity into induction week and to allow submissions through Turnitin.  Students in need of support with their academic writing can then be identified at an early stage and offered guidance and support.  This is particularly relevant to Socrates/Erasmus students who are often unfamiliar with UK academic conventions and may perceive Turnitin in a negative light.

One student mentioned being confused by Turnitin showing websites that she had not visited.   This could be because the text appears on several websites and the one shown in the report was not the one the text came from.  I have also noticed this and concluded that careful scrutiny and interpretation of Turnitin’s reports is an important component of an anti-plagiarism strategy.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that tutors also have difficulties both setting assessments and analysing Turnitin reports.  As with most technological innovations staff training is essential especially when many departments are dependent on hourly-paid staff, who are often not paid for staff training events.

Bibliographical References

  • Jude Carroll, A Handbook for Deterring Plagiarism in Higher Education, Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development, 2002
  • Phill Race and Sally Brown, The Lecturer’s Toolkit: A Practical Guide to Learning, Teaching and Assessment , 2001

Useful Resources