Brandi Harris

Using Turnitin to Create a Culture of Openness and Student Engagement in Writing

Brandi Harris, English Professor
North Lake College


Brandi Harris discusses how Turnitin can foster a culture of openness between instructor and student, help students understand plagiarism and writing feedback, and emphasize writing as a learning process.

Turnitin: Welcome to the Turnitin Educator Spotlight Series. I’m joined today by Brandi Harris, an English professor at North Lake College, who will share her insights on how to open up the dialogue around plagiarism and writing feedback using Turnitin. Welcome Brandi. I just had a quick question to start things off. Could you tell us a little bit more about yourself and the classes you teach?

B.H.: I teach at North Lake College. We are a two-year community college in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Basically, I teach everything from developmental writing through English composition through literature classes and I use Turnitin for basically all of those courses.

They know that if they don’t understand a comment or if they don’t understand one of the marks that’s placed on their paper that they can come and talk to me about it and I’ll happily let them know what’s going on and we can figure out a strategy to fix it.
Brandi Harris, North Lake College

Turnitin: So between those different courses, have you been using Turnitin differently in a developmental English context as compared to a comparative literature class?

B.H.: Well, in developmental (classes), you know those students are really just beginning to understand what plagiarism is, what it looks like, what specific actions they’re taking that qualify as plagiarism and what Turnitin has helped me do is really open a dialogue with them because they’re able to submit their rough draft, get the similarity index rating and you know, freak out a little bit when it’s high, but then they’re able to ask me questions and we’re better able to look at their individual essay and the results that they’ve gotten. I can explain to them why that qualifies as plagiarism and make sure that they have good understanding of it so that they can fix it for their final draft. In literature classes, it’s helpful for them as a reminder. “Hey this stuff is happening, you are still responsible for documenting your work when you should know already.” And so it kind of acts like a fail-safe in those lit classes, reminding them, “Oh, if I didn’t document appropriately, I need to fix that before I turn in a final draft—that kind of thing.”

Turnitin: How would those discussions have panned out if you didn’t use Turnitin?

B.H.: Well, typically, I would be the initiating the conversation before our use of Turnitin. They would submit a draft, I would sniff out plagiarism. I would confirm it on my end and I would go to the student and start that conversation and when instructors are forced to do that, it kind of seems—at least I think on the student end—that they’re being attacked. They get really defensive. But Turnitin, by flipping that (and) allowing students to come to us and to really make everything out in the open a discussion rather than an attack, it helps them understand that it (writing) is a learning process and it’s something they have to master.

Turnitin: That’s an interesting point. So, you’ve used Turnitin to drive the discussion on plagiarism. Have you used GradeMark at all to open up the dialogue in other areas or writing feedback?

B.H.: Yeah, definitely. It’s saved me a ton of time, having those GradeMarks there that I can just pull and drop into the paper and highlighting and adding comments very quickly in-text has been a tremendous time saver for me and I know for some of my colleagues as well. But in addition to that, on the student end, they’re able to more effectively make sense of those comments. They’re able to get instant access to that information in their textbook. (I can say) “You’re having problems with comma splices; here’s how a comma is used. Go to this part of your textbook to look it up. It can help you there.” And they know that if they don’t understand a comment or if they don’t understand one of the marks that’s placed on their paper that they can come and talk to me about it and I’ll happily let them know what’s going on and we can figure out a strategy to fix it.

Turnitin: Could you talk about that further? What are some areas in your student’s writing that you need to fix and how has Turnitin addressed that?

B.H.: In developmental, it is primarily grammar mechanics…a lot of fragments, a lot of comma splices and run-ons and then we have a large international population at our campus and so, I frequently use article usage GradeMarks as well. Those are kind of the big ones that I constantly pull out for those developmental classes. In lit (literature classes), it more revolves around content, organization—things of that nature—and making sure the evidence they’re providing is good and solid evidence and developing paragraphs more fully.

Turnitin: As you’ve been providing that type of targeted, in-depth feedback, what are some of the implications of using Turnitin on student learning outcomes.

B.H.: We certainly have a greater number of developmental students. Turnitin has definitely helped get those students to a level of writing that’s more college ready. Through the use of GradeMark, through the use of the Similarity Index, it has really helped them understand in-text documentation. In a works cited page, everybody tends to have knowledge of those that understand them to some degree and anticipate that in research writing those are going to be there. But in-text documentation is always something that students struggle with just across the board, regardless of what class they’re in and what those discussions and what these similarity indexes has done for us is say “Okay, this is your paper as you’ve submitted it. It’s been counted as plagiarized in the similarity index because your internal documentation isn’t there. This is a moment where you have paraphrased or directly quoted from a site or another paper. How do we mediate that for our readers and let them know that we’re borrowing that material? We do it this way.” It allows us to provide them that little bit of extra instruction that they may need to get over the hump and finally begin to put all those MLA pieces together.

Turnitin: So, this is the last question I had for you. From your experiences, why is writing so important?

B.H.: Writing is communication. In every aspect of life be it professionally or personally, we use written communication everyday. If they can’t write effectively and they don’t know the rules governing intellectual property then they’re not going to be as productive or successful in any avenue of life. They have to have these skills.

Turnitin: Thank you so much for taking the time to share your experience with us. I’ve been talking to English professor Brandi Harris from North Lake College.