Using Turnitin in Your Courses

Turnitin is a text-matching tool for encouraging academic integrity, but it can also be integrated into course activities to help students understand academic integrity in written assignments.

Turnitin generates ‘similarlity reports’ on student submissions, which can provide instructors with information about plagiarized sources, but the reports can also be used  to help students understand the proper use of quotation marks, how to cite sources properly, and how to paraphrase. As scholars in our own disciplines, we know that we need to acknowledge the ideas we build on from others; this is an important scholarly activity. If an intended outcome for written assignments in your course is to have students reflect on the nature of research or to represent the contribution that other scholars have made in the field, then Turnitin can be an integral part of effective learning activities to support these outcomes.  

To use Turnitin, instructors must add a Turnitin drop box to their LEARN course

Students submit electronic files to the Turnitin drop box. These files are housed on the Turnitin server and on the D2L server. The text in each student’s submission is compared to a large database of other students’ submissions that have been collected through Turnitin from many institutions and to textual material located on the web (for example, websites, electronic documents, and ejournals). Students’ submissions are added to a pool of Waterloo submissions as well, but not to the general Turnitin database; future Waterloo submissions are compared against this pool unless the drop box settings are modified to prevent this. Turnitin drop boxes can be configured so that only the instructor views the analysis of the submission (the “similarlity report”) or so that students can submit and see the analysis of their own work. You may enable Turnitin in your LEARN dropboxes. Please see the University guidelines for using this tool.

Turnitin creates an “similarlity report” for each submission

The similarlity report highlights the phrases and series of words that match text already in the Turnitin database, or on the web, and generates an overall similarity index percentage that represents the number of words that the program finds in common with database content and divides that number by the total number of words in the file. For example if the overall similarity index for a submission is 10%, then 10% of the total words in the document can be matched to sequences of words in the database. These words may be in one passage or may be in several, separate passages. If Turnitin is being used to detect plagiarism, it is important to check each paper to judge whether the overall similarity index that has been calculated is due to chance matches, matches to common terms or phrases used for an assignment (e.g. , the title of a key document, process, legislation, etc.) or intentional copying from a source that has not been cited. There are options to generate reports that exclude text in quotations marks and in bibliographies. Similarlity reports need to be interpreted on a case-by-case basis and any determinations of plagiarism require human judgement. Depending on the number of students in a course and the length of their papers, this process can be time consuming.

How can instructors use this tool most effectively in their course?

Based on the literature and results of the Turnitin pilot at the School of Accounting and Finance at the University of Waterloo, here are some considerations for the use of Turnitin.

Preparing your students to use Turnitin:

  • On the course outline, you must inform students that Turnitin will be used in your course. You must also identify alternatives to Turnitin for students. Alternatives could be one of: an annotated bibliography, a draft bibliography identifying and documenting all sources and submitted on a specified date before the due date for the assignment, or a “scaffolded” assignment where the student submits an outline of their paper in advance, and then at least one draft of the paper with their list of resources before the submission of the final paper with a bibliography. See the University of Waterloo Turnitin Guidelines for details about options.
  • Organize a trial submission to the Turnitin dropbox so that students have an opportunity to practice accessing and submitting to a drop box well in advance of the assignment due date.
  • Provide a rationale for the use of the tool in both the course outline and the assignment instructions (Academic integrity at Waterloo - Why is academic integrity important?; Ledwith & Risquez, 2008).
  • Make students aware of the citation conventions that exist in your discipline (Sutherland-Smith & Carr, 2005). Your liaison librarian can help you incorporate resources which will help students learn to use citations appropriately.
  • Discuss the concept of original thought with your students, remembering that scholarly papers are built on the scholarship of others. If you are asking students to be highly original, then you may have higher incidents of plagiarism because students may be reluctant to cite their sources properly (Johnson & Clerehan, 2005).

Using Turnitin as a learning activity

  • Turnitin can be used as a formative or low-stakes assessment around paraphrasing or citation that allows students to review their results and resubmit their assignment after they have addressed their own mistakes (Ledwith & Risquez, 2008). Ask your Centre for Teaching Excellence liaison or your Centre for Extended Learning representative for details.
  • If students are going to look at similarlity reports of their own submissions as part of a learning activity, make sure that they are taught how to interpret the report; many students have reported that they didn’t understand the report that they received (Whittle & Murdoch-Eaton, 2008).

Using Turnitin as a plagiarism tool

  • To help avoid misconduct, clearly define plagiarism within the context of your discipline and how it relates to the assignment that is being submitted, and explain the extent to which students are allowed to work as a group (Goddard & Rudzki, 2005; Johnson & Clerehan, 2005).
  • Taking time in class at the beginning of term to discuss academic integrity and providing resources for students who may not fully understand plagiarism can reduce unintentional plagiarism (Ledwith & Risquez, 2008). 
  • Scaffolded assignments where students hand in a series of documents that illustrate the construction and evolution of major papers for instructor feedback can help to document the development of the ideas in a paper and may deter students from plagiarism (Emerson, Rees, MacKay, 2005). Ask your Centre for Teaching Excellence liaison or your Centre for Extended Learning representative for details about designing these sorts of assignments.
  • Recognize that the use of Turnitin may control plagiarism through the threat of detection rather than by instilling academic values in students (Ledwith & Risquez, 2008).

Practical considerations

  • In the Waterloo pilot study, it was reported by faculty that Turnitin may not be helpful for the review of tables of numbers because it focuses on text. Turnitin will not flag any numbers in a document.
  • Using Turnitin may result in more time required to mark assignments, and you may want to factor in the reading of the Turnitin report into the time allowed for marking by you or your teaching assistants (Sutherland-Smith & Carr, 2005; Waterloo Turnitin School of Accounting and Finance Pilot Results, 2008).
  • Recognize that a greater incidence of reported plagiarism could occur with the use of Turnitin and that University of Waterloo faculty are required to report any incidences of academic misconduct as outlined in Policy 71.
  • Expect that students will appeal the plagiarism charges and be prepared to go through the appeal process.
  • Check out the Centre for Teaching Excellence (CTE) tip sheet Encouraging Academic Integrity in Your Course for more ways to encourage academic integrity.


If you would like support applying these tips to your own teaching, CTE staff members are here to help.  View the CTE Support page to find the most relevant staff member to contact.



Prepared in collaboration with Waterloo's Centre for Extended Learning.

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