Guest Blogger: Bill Donohue
Here we are in Spring, and as we all await those final student products that demonstrate student learning from another successful semester, I know what you are thinking: “I wonder how Donohue’s use of Turnitin that he blogged about in January went this semester.” Fear not; I am here to give you an update!
Throughout the semester, students were required to submit select writing assignments using the Turnitin feature on Moodle. These assignments were ones that I have seen plagiarism in the past from essay mills or Sparknotes.
Overall, I saw five instances of plagiarism, two of which came from the same student. These are interesting cases to discuss as they shed light on both teaching and learning at Lincoln.
In ENG 101, students had to write an essay about Langston Hughes based on a close reading of his poetry and essays. Two students submitting essays to Turnitin had high similarity scores that proved to be opportunities for formative teaching and learning.
Both essays had sentences copied and pasted from internet sources. One student had minimal use of plagiarized sentences, and I addressed the issue through feedback about proper citation on the assignment through Turnitin’s feedback studio. The other had a very high rate copied sentences. I addition to feedback on the essay, I followed up with the student during a writing workshop. An underlying issue for the student was not understanding the writing assignment and the critical thinking concepts we had been discussing and practicing building toward the essay assignment. In a desperate attempt to submit something, the student wrote a biography of Langston Hughes, mainly by copying from internet sources. Not only was this teachable moment about plagiarism, but also a formative learning opportunity regarding the more difficult concept of close reading and critical thinking. The student revised the essay and was able to engage in the independent thinking and writing exercise intended by the assignment (without plagiarism).
In ENG 099, there were three instances of plagiarism for assignments related to the reading of the novel A Lesson Before Dying. Two of the plagiarized submission were by the same student. My concerns are broader than difficulty with course content as seen in ENG 101.
All three plagiarized papers were emailed to me as opposed to submitted to Turnitin, as required. Part of the reason for need to email the assignments was that the assignments were completed after the due date. Turnitin will not accept submission past the due date. (The regular Moodle assignment submission function allows for a due date and a grace period. Good to know if using one or both tools during a course). I uploaded these emailed assignments to Turnitin for analysis and feedback. However, the emailing of the plagiarized assignments may be an attempt at subterfuge by avoiding the plagiarism checker altogether.
One student had a similarity score in the green at 23%, but the plagiarism detected was enough fail the student. Although the assignment required analysis, a more difficult task than writing a summary, this is a student who usually does not have problems thinking independently and is quite vocal in class. One reason for the plagiarism might be the desperation to submit a late assignment. However, the student came to class high last week (smelled like marijuana; glassy, bloodshot eyes; delayed responses; evasive). My fear is that the student is heading down a road that will adversely affect academic performance.
The other student emailed both a chapter summary assignment and a character analysis assignment after the due date. Both were heavily plagiarized. The student has been consistently inconsistent all semester. When she is on, she does quite well. But other times, she misses class or does shoddy work, if she has completed the work at all. Other than online feedback, I have not had a chance to talk to the student directly, mostly because she has missed class. In an email exchange on a different topic, she did indicate how “swamped” she is with work, especially in trying to complete overdue work with work that is due next week. Is this another case of plagiarism due to desperation? Does she not know how to properly complete the assignments? Is she struggling with course content? Is she failing at organizing and prioritizing her work? How is she spending her time outside of class? Is she going to make it? What can I do for this student?
Such are the questions that keep me up at night.
One change that I made for a final writing portfolio assignment in ENG 099 was to engage higher level thinking skills. The straightforward character analysis that was plagiarized by two students has been altered to an assignment where students are placed in a position of running for sheriff in the fictional Louisiana town where A Lesson Before Dying is set. The students need to have an understanding of the character responsible for much of the systemic racism in the town in order to create an argument as to why they should be sheriff instead. The critical thinking started right away in our class discussion of the assignment when one student asked about the time frame. Should they write in the 1940s setting of Bayonne, Louisiana, or current day? We settled on 1940s Louisiana, but without voting restrictions based on race or gender.
I look forward to reading those assignments and all the final portfolios due next week from another semester of teaching and learning.
What was your experience with student writing and/or the use of Turnitin in your classes this semester?