Cynthia Christopherson

Giving Students a Research-Based Education in the 21st Century

Cynthia Christopherson, English Teacher
North Stafford High School


By having students read scholarly articles, write summaries towards a broader research project, and then self analyze the depth of their own paper commentaries, Christopherson uses Turnitin to provide in-depth instruction on proper citation practices, as a tool to help prepare students for the 21st century, and as part of a school-wide initiative to make students more culturally and globally aware.

Turnitin: Welcome to the Turnitin Educator Spotlight Series! My name is Kenneth Balibalos. Joining me today is Cyndi Christopherson, English teacher at North Stafford High School and an Academic Integrity Honorable Mention for the Turnitin All-Stars Award Program. Welcome Cyndi, thanks for joining us today.

Could you tell us a little bit more about yourself?

C.C.: Sure. My name is Cyndi Christopherson. I teach 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th grade English; 11th and 12th grade are both AP.

Students have tools at their fingertips that make plagiarizing and cheating so easy. Many of them don't realize how dangerous it is. For students to succeed, they have to be able to not just read and write and do math. They really have to be citizens of the world. Having this knowledge-based, research-based education is vital to their future success.
Cynthia Christopherson, North Stafford High School

Turnitin: How is your Turnitin use different in each of the classes? What is going through your mind in your approaches, your strategies, and trying to meet students with where they’re at?

C.C.: I use Turnitin differently in each of my classes, partly because I haven’t been teaching in this program for that long. This is only my second year, so it’s the underclassmen; I’ve been able to train them to use Turnitin in the way that I want them to. The upperclassmen, they take a little bit more work, and they don’t need as much feedback from me. So with the upperclassmen, I use it primarily as a tool for a plagiarism check, and a way to make sure that they’re getting things done and turned in on time. I can keep track of when things get turned in with the upperclassmen very easily because of the time stamp on Turnitin, as well as being able to open and close the window.

Other features that I really like is the originality report and how easy it is to see on their essays what the percentage is--where their unoriginal ideas are coming from, whether it’s student papers or something on the internet, and I like that they’re color-coded, so it’s very easy for me. I like the color and being able to see where each of those citations—where they all come from and where they have gotten those. So it’s another feature that I really like.

Turnitin: Regarding your underclassmen, do you have specific examples, stories or approaches in helping them understand academic integrity with Turnitin?

C.C.: Well, I think with underclassmen, one reason they need a lot of help is because in this era of high-stakes testing, they don’t get as much writing instruction in elementary and middle school as, I think, high school teachers appreciate. We know that the middle school teachers are doing their job, but they’re not doing formal writing and formal essays that often in middle school. So, it’s about being able to take advantage of the QuickMarks, especially when it comes to formatting. Until they get to high school, most students have never heard of MLA. They don’t understand how to do in-text citations or bibliographies and works cited pages. So having all of that built right into the system makes it really easy and having built into those QuickMarks the directions on how to fix those problems, not just that--oh, here’s a formatting issue--but directions how to fix them and links to other resources that will help them learn to do those things.

For me in particular, I have my students only two days a week for about an hour and ten minutes a day and during that time, it’s just not enough time to keep going over the same kinds of mistakes. Being able to use those comments to improve their writing is really, really nice.

Turnitin: How do you improve student writing given that you only meet 2 days a week?

C.C.: One of the best ways to improve student writing is through one-on-one teacher-student conferences, and so I always require my students to have an essay that they’re working on, or one that they’ve just turned in, and we sit down and look at it together. I have quite a few writing conferences with my students. They come in after school, and we sit and talk about their writing, and I open up and pull up their old essays. So, having that portfolio at my fingertips is invaluable when it comes to parent conferences and student writing conferences.

And when there are issues that I see repeatedly in their papers, I pull up those QuickMarks, and we talk about what those comments mean, and I do require my students--once the essays are graded--to go back in and look at their essays, to read the comments and the commentary. Turnitin allows me to see who’s gone in and who hasn’t, which is another added benefit. So, I use Turnitin in writers’ conferences and parent conferences and have found that it’s really invaluable, an invaluable writing tool.

Turnitin: How do you use Turnitin to promote academic integrity, critical thinking, original thought, and digital literacy?

C.C.: In regards to academic integrity, this is something that I preach all of the time--that students need to be original in their thoughts and in their writing, and when my students turn in their papers, they notice what their percentage of writing is not original. If it’s not 80% of their own writing, then their commentary isn’t strong enough. They’re using too many quotes from the text, and so they use that number themselves, and I’ve taught them to look at that number. If it is not below 20%, then they don’t have enough commentary. They’re not original in their thought. You know, even if it’s 30% of quotes, it’s still not enough of them. I want to hear what they’re saying. I don’t want to reread the book. I don’t want to reread the play.

I use it as a tool for my students so that they can see what is original, and if they have enough original commentary, especially as underclassmen. They haven’t quite learned how to analyze the text, especially at the beginning of the year. They really struggle, and they spend a lot of time summarizing rather than analyzing, and so it’s a tool that I have taught them to use for themselves, not just for me. I appreciate having the tool for myself, but I appreciate it more for my students, when they can look at that number, when they can look and see how much their paper is a quote, and how much has been accidentally plagiarized from one of their sources.

Turnitin: What’s one example of how your school promotes academic integrity in its curriculum or in a particular assignment?

C.C.: Well, the program where I teach is very highly research-based. In fact, my students have to do a research project throughout the year. They start this in 9th grade, and I use Turnitin also for that as well. About every month they have to read scholarly articles about their research topic, and they have to do summaries and take notes and look at the relevance of that article, and most of their articles I’ve found online are through scholarly databases. All of those are turned in every month online as well. We are constantly trying to make our students not just culturally aware, not just locally aware, but globally aware of what is going on outside of our four walls, and what makes research legitimate, and what kinds of tools are necessary to determine whether something is legitimate or not, or whether it is scholarly or not.

Turnitin: You touched on this before, but what role does Turnitin play in helping students understand what plagiarism is and what proper research writing looks like?

C.C.: One thing with Turnitin and being able to see just at a glance the originality report, especially with these 9th graders coming in--they may not realize what plagiarism really is. They know the word, and they understand the word, but they may not understand that just paraphrasing somebody or changing a word here and there is still considered plagiarism. That originality report shows them right away. We look at them and how to fix those mistakes. You thought you were just paraphrasing, and paraphrasing is not the same as plagiarism. We discuss that right off the bat that paraphrasing is still plagiarism--if you don’t cite it and if you don’t give them credit and how easy it is to fix those mistakes. That’s one thing I said, I really like the color-coding of the originality report, because it allows them to see very easily what is theirs and what is not. That’s the kind of lesson that kids need reinforcement in a couple of times before they really settle down and get into their research.

Turnitin: One last question I had for you is why is it so important for students to have a research-based education and academic integrity in today’s day and age?

C.C.: Well, I think that students have tools at their fingertips that make plagiarizing and cheating so easy, and they have things that we never had when I was growing up. They can go online and buy essays that other people have written. And because it is so easy, I think many of them don’t realize how dangerous it is and what a slippery slope it is to get into that kind of behavior. For every quiz they take, every test they take, my students have to pledge their honesty, and so academic integrity in all aspects of education is so important. Honesty and learning from your mistakes is so important in this day and age where the world has become very small and very flat. For students to succeed, they have to be able to not just read and write and do math, they really have to be citizens of the world. They have to have these 21st-century skills that are more than just making PowerPoints. They have to be able to do research for so many different jobs--and being able to do it well and having the integrity to do their own original work. My students, like I said, I have them for four years, and to be able to see them from fresh-faced 9th graders going to Ivy League schools by the time they graduate, and having this knowledge-based, this research-based education is--I think-- very vital to their future success.

Turnitin: Thank you so much for taking the time to share your experience with us. I’ve been talking to Cyndi Christopherson, English teacher at North Stafford High School.