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It’s Quandary Corner, where we tackle your toughest questions. Sometimes, there are no right answers, just differing opinions.

Dear Faculty Commons,

I’ve been reading a lot about online services like Turnitin and Grammarly, and I’m really torn. Grading students’ written work takes a long time, and I do worry that they are not always completing their assignments honestly. Some of my colleagues have advised me to use Turnitin for take-home essay finals and term papers because they say it will make it much easier to assign grades quickly and fairly. Isn’t that what we all want? But I am a little nervous about what happens to that student’s work, and how much my students are actually learning if they just dump their writing into a computer program. This isn’t a question as much as a general concern, and one that I know other instructors share. Please help!


Turnitin-ed Off but Timed Out

Dear Turnitin-ed Off but Timed Out,

This is a tricky question, for sure! Our advice is, however, pretty simple. There are lots of good opinion pieces out there now where people litigate the pros and cons of the specific services that you mention (for example, this article from the Chronicle of Higher Education) so we’re going to help you focus on placing value on process rather than product. Online plagiarism detection and writing-support tools are all product-focused – they want to help instructors and students create a slick product. But process thinking is where the real impact is on student learning.

For example, consider ways to get students to follow a scholarly conversation, rather than just cutting and pasting from a text. When asked to articulate the purpose of citation, students often reply that the purpose is to avoid accusations of plagiarism. Helping students see good citations as a roadmap for subsequent researchers can help them recognize their utility. Having students locate an article or book, and then looking in Google Scholar to discover additional relevant works using the “cited by” feature is one very simple means of helping students track a scholarly conversation as it unfolds. As students continue to develop their own ideas in their drafts and build off the ideas of others, they will begin to see themselves as contributors to scholarship rather than mere consumers of it. The UD Library offers a few short activities that can help students identify the threads of the scholarly conversation.

Process thinking is incredibly important in writing, and UD has a Writing Center that is incredible at supporting students in the processes of planning, drafting, and revision. Peer tutors in the Writing Center are accomplished academic writers themselves, with plenty of practice in synthesizing ideas from multiple sources. Tutors frequently share their own researching, arguing, and citing knowledge with writers who seek their support. To supplement their own personal experience with incorporating sources, part of their preparation to work at the Writing Center asks tutors to analyze how other successful academic writers engage with texts at many stages in the writing process, from how writers use published sources to discover their own writing territory, to how they rhetorically frame the voices of others through summary, paraphrase, and quotation. UD English Professor Joseph Harris’ book Rewriting: How to Do Things with Texts has proven to be very valuable to tutors (and you might find it useful to your students, as well!), as Harris explicitly discusses the “moves” writers make when interacting with the voices of others. To take full advantage of writing tutors’ preparation to work with student writers, you might consider suggesting that your students not just visit the Writing Center at the end of the process to check if their citations are “right” (tutors aren’t living plagiarism detectors, after all!), but rather that they begin consulting with a tutor earlier in the writing process, when they are still developing ideas about not only what their sources say, but also what the students themselves want to say in their writing.

Designing assignments that are hard, or impossible, to plagiarize is a great way to side-step the conversations about plagiarism detection software while also focusing on authentic and meaningful learning experiences for your students. You might want to try “mashups” of genre and content, such as having students write op-eds of historical events, New York Times Book Review style essays on primary texts, or having students write children’s museum-style panel text to introduce a scientific process. These kinds of assignments are very difficult to plagiarize, but that means that they can also be a little tricky to grade. Make that easy on yourself with a good rubric. Need help? CTAL has you covered! Email them at CTAL-info@udel.edu and get a consultation scheduled.

Making mistakes isn’t just a by-product of the learning process. Learning from failure can actually be an important learning tool itself. In the learning sciences, “productive failure” has been demonstrated to help students transfer and apply knowledge beyond the failed condition. It seems counter-intuitive, but when students fail at working on complex, poorly-defined problems, they make gains in their own problem-solving abilities. Taking shortcuts, or creating overly-structured challenges with well-defined outcomes, may take away an important learning opportunity for students. To learn more about productive failure, see Manu Kapur’s work, especially his article “Productive Failure” in the journal Cognition and Instruction.

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