Using Turnitin to help improve students’ writing

Using Turnitin to help improve students’ writing

“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”


On the face of it, ‘assessment’ seems a rather dry subject. Isn’t the important thing a student’s own dialogue with a text or a set of texts? Isn’t the way we ‘test’ or ‘assess’ that dialogue something of a technicality? The problem with this view of assessment is twofold: it downplays the variety of ways (good and bad) in which choice of assessment can affect what students do, and it conceives of assessment as ‘summative’ rather than ‘formative’—as something that happens after a student has worked on a course rather than something that can be used during a course to help shape a student’s intellectual development. Thinking of assessment in this limited way also ignores the fact that it is often only through assessed work (such as, traditionally, the essay) that students can get to grips with a topic.

Because students (naturally enough) adapt their work patterns to fit in with assessment requirements, the lecturer’s choice of assessment method is a crucial means of getting students to ‘engage’ with a topic in the way or ways in which she or he wants. Assessment choice, then, is at the heart of what we as lecturers hope to achieve.

Skilful use of varied forms of assessment can help combat the twin evils of plagiarism and the ‘assessment-driven’ student. The less predictable and conventional a prescribed assignment is, the less vulnerable it is to plagiarism. Designing a course with a sequence of small-scale asssessed tasks which build cumulatively on one another, meanwhile, should help mitigate the problem of the student who simply chooses three topics or texts to ‘do’ at the start of a semester and ignores all other aspects of the course.

Three ways of categorizing assessment are identified in the QAA Code of Practice:
diagnostic assessment provides an indicator of a learner’s aptitude and preparedness for a programme of study and identifies possible learning problems;
formative assessment
is designed to provide learners with feedback on progress and inform development, but does not contribute to the overall assessment;
summative assessment provides a measure of achievement or failure made in respect of a learner’s performance in relation to the intended learning outcomes of the programme of study.
These categories are not mutually exclusive.

As the Subject Centre’s Curriculum Surveys (1 and 2) have shown, the standard method of assessment in English courses remains the essay (in coursework, in exams, or as a ‘dissertation’ or ‘thesis’). Like the novel, the essay has had a long history and shows no sign of imminent demise. The ability to write at length about set texts is likely to remain at the centre of English degrees for a long while yet. According to the English Benchmarking Statement, ‘English students should be required to write essays as a fundamental part of their learning experience.’ Essays can, however, very usefully be complemented by a wide range of other forms of assessment, some of which are listed on the Modes of Assessment page and discussed in detail on the website of the HEFCE FDTL (Fund for the Development of Teaching and Learning) project, Assessment and the Expanded Text.

Varying assessment helps all students, accommodating, among other things, inevitable variations in student ‘learning styles’ and skills and social and cultural background. It is often suggested that innovative forms of assessment are especially useful as a means of ‘widening participation’ by catering to the needs of students from groups under-represented in HE who may be particularly lacking in confidence about their ability to work in ‘academic’ forms. The shift in English at A-level over past years away from extended writing provides English lecturers with a further (and pressing) motivation to think creatively and experimentally about assessment methods.