Encouraging International and Dyslexic Students to Develop Better Learning Strategies



This study is an attempt to foster greater involvement by international and dyslexic students in learning strategies at the formative stage of academic writing through structured tutorial sessions using Turnitin. The difficulties with academic writing for international students may stem from a lack of knowledge of UK academic conventions and language problems, while those for dyslexic students may be due to problems with manipulation of language. Through a discussion of results from Turnitin reports on draft assignments, students were encouraged to make use of formative feedback to improve on final drafts and to engage more in their own learning.


This study focuses on an attempt to foster greater involvement by international and dyslexic students in learning strategies at the formative stage of academic writing.

Both groups may be shown to experience an above-average difficulty with academic writing, due to a non-native language proficiency and lack of knowledge of UK academic conventions in the case of international students, and due to problems with manipulating language, poor short-term memory and weak organisational skills with dyslexic students. However, research has shown that the appropriate support from tutors in the formative stage can be of great benefit (McGarrell and Verbeem, 2007). Turnitin is a proprietary software that offers the opportunity to examine source use in a student assignment through uploading it to the Turnitin database and receiving an ‘originality report’,which shows all the matches to the database of source material. Thus the aim of this study is to find whether the use of Turnitin in formative feedback sessions may engage international and dyslexic students effectively in their own learning process, and lead them towards making improvements in their writing.

Difficulties with academic writing

The difficulty of many international students, particularly East Asian students, in adapting to Higher Education academic culture in the UK has been well documented (Errey, 2002 and Hayes and Introna, 2005). In particular, understanding and putting into practice academic conventions, such as citations, quotations, paraphrasing, referencing systems and bibliographies, are not easy skills for international students to acquire. It should be expected that students will make errors while learning new academic conventions, as argued by Pecorari (2003:42): ’most students will use sources inappropriately before they learn how to use them appropriately’. It would therefore appear that giving students practice, allowing them to ‘get it wrong’ before they ‘get it right’ offers a more realistic, effective and supportive approach. In addition, there is also a need for students to engage very actively in the process of understanding how to use sources in their own work, rather than gaining education about plagiarism only from passive instruction (Barrett and Malcolm, 2006).  Meanwhile, another problem for international students is not having a native level of English, which could lead them to excessive and possibly unacknowledged textual borrowing. Bennett (2005) concluded that having a non-native language level was one of the reasons for plagiarism among international students. Meanwhile, it has also been found that international students are more likely to be suspected of plagiarism, including through the use of plagiarism software in assessment (Hayes and Introna, 2005). Therefore, support during the formative process that could ease these difficulties is particularly important.

It is generally believed that many students at university are already able to communicate reasonably well on paper. Most are automatically able to perform the simpler functions of reading and spelling, and to construct grammatically adequate sentences and paragraphs. Students with dyslexia may lack this automatic ability. Writing at the Higher Education level also requires analysing, evaluating and synthesising evidence acquired from the literature and the addition of personal originality. Dyslexic students, who often have a poor working memory, may find it difficult to coordinate multiple tasks at different levels (Price, 2006). It is therefore conceivable that due to these problems, their writing may be more vulnerable to plagiarism (Price and Skinner, 2007). Moreover, for dyslexic students, paraphrasing may be considered a risky course of action (JISC, 2008). However, in contrast to the wide range of readily available publications on plagiarism by non-native speaking international students, there has been limited research conducted on the occurrence of plagiarism by dyslexic writers at Higher Education.

The use and potential use of Turnitin

The number of institutions and academics using Turnitin software continues to grow; for example, the current estimation is that over 90 per cent of all UK universities and colleges use it (Turnitin, 2008). In a ‘Report on the Introduction of Turnitin at Oxford Brookes’, Carroll (2008) indicated that over a period of three years from January 2005 to December 2007, 6,289 pieces of coursework from 3,222 students were submitted to Turnitin. Once submitted, the colour-coding system shows the level of text in the student’s work that matches with text on the Turnitin database. The results from the Carroll study indicated that 2% showed >75% matching text, 4% showed >50% matching, 17% showed 25-50% matching, and therefore, 77% showed <25% matching. Carroll (2008) has pointed out that although matching does not necessarily mean plagiarism, such data can alert those involved in pedagogy to pieces of work that need attention. Nevertheless, to date, most of the use of Turnitin remains in assessment as a check for plagiarism.

Meanwhile, Turnitin has begun to promote itself as a tool for learning: ‘Recognized worldwide as the standard in online plagiarism prevention, Turnitin helps educators and students take full advantage of the internet’s educational potential’ (Turnitin, 2008). This potential could be harnessed through the use of Turnitin in feedback on the drafting process for all students, particularly those shown to be at a disadvantage. Students with a weaker grasp of academic conventions may have difficulty in understanding feedback related to their use of other authors’ words. For example, Hyland (2001) found that tutorial feedback about plagiarism was often given in an indirect way that students could not understand. When Turnitin originality reports are used with the visual presentation of sources on screen, feedback related to use of sources can be given in a clear, understandable way, which may be seen as a further advantage of using the software at this stage.

Research by Cohen (2007) on student engagement with Turnitin also endorsed the significance of formative use through ‘formal practice sessions’. The business and economics students in her case study reported that the sessions gave them useful writing practice, reduced their anxiety about assessment and also helped with citation skills. Focusing on access students, Watkins (2008) also found that Turnitin had many advantages as a pedagogic tool with a ‘feed-forward’ approach before assessment by encouraging greater involvement from the student in correcting poor practice, gaining awareness of source use and developing reflexivity in their learning, as well as dispelling fears of plagiarising. Davis et al. (2007) also concluded from a joint study at universities in New Zealand and the UK that the tutor-led intervention using Turnitin engaged international students more effectively in their writing.

The significance of tutorial sessions on learning

Recent research has demonstrated the need for tutorials to support the development of academic literacy. McGowan (2005) advocates a language-based approach to learning about conventions through individual and small group sessions, in particular for international students to reduce their fear of getting it wrong and also to decrease inadvertent plagiarism caused by lack of comprehension. Her approach is to examine student steps in academic literacy as positive development, rather than the negative perspective of avoiding plagiarism. Meanwhile, Johnson and Clerehan (2005) argued that it is particularly difficult for international students to be original and furthermore, internationalisation of the curriculum must involve suitable changes to pedagogical methods, which include more individual support. In addition, Emerson et al. (2005) found a correlation between giving a structured tutorial in the formative stage of writing, and the level of plagiarism in the final assessed work (i.e., the level went down after the tutorial). Furthermore, they found that the tutorial eliminated plagiarism in the case of non-native speaking international students.

Thus, while a considerable number of studies have highlighted difficulties with academic integrity, and the benefits of Turnitin and tutorials at a formative stage, few have focused on ways of promoting international students’ engagement with appropriate source use in writing. Moreover, there is an absence of such studies on dyslexic students and no known joint study of the two groups. This study aims to address these gaps.


The method for the international students and dyslexic students was broadly similar in that they were both offered a tutorial session using Turnitin originality reports at a formative stage in their writing, in which the tutor uploaded student work and discussed the reports on a one-on-one basis. Building on research over the past three years (Davis, 2007), Turnitin was used with a cohort of 23 international students in their first drafts of a 3,000-word mini-dissertation in a pre-Master’s writing module. The formalised feedback followed specific questions to engage students more actively in their own learning and their development of academic literacy. The questions were designed as non-judgmental and non-threatening, with a strong focus on guiding students to think about their own answers, rather than telling them where they are wrong. This method was also chosen to promote greater independence and self-sufficiency; through careful tutor guidance, the students were largely able to take responsibility for their own improvements of drafts. The questions used are given in Table 1.

Table 1: Tutorial questions

  1. Do you understand how and where to use: citation?quotation marks?
  2. Do you think you have copied this quotation exactly?
  3. Do you think something (author/year/page number/quotation marks) might be missing here?
  4. Have a look at this section. Can you see the grey words which show you have made changes? Do you think there are enough changes to make an effective paraphrase?
  5. This source is shown as 5% of your assignment (e.g., 150 words out of 3,000) – do you think that is the right amount to use this source?
  6. Have a look at the quotations highlighted by Turnitin: do you think there are enough, too many or too few?
  7. Do you think there are enough of your own words in this section?
  8. Turnitin has highlighted this part as coming from another source, but you have not shown this. What can you tell me about that? What do you think you need to do about it?
  9. This section is in a different font and is highlighted by Turnitin. Do you think you may have copied and pasted it without acknowledging it?
  10. What do you think you need to do to your draft now?

The checklist of areas to cover in the tutorial was expanded to include more interpretation of Turnitin findings. Along with the areas previously considered of accuracy of citation, amount of sources, over-reliance on some sources, appropriate paraphrasing, copying quotations accurately, avoiding plagiarism, three new areas were included this time. First, it was found that Turnitin could highlight where there was an absence of the student’s own voice, with over-use of textual borrowing; second, it was found that Turnitin could show unacknowledged text next to correctly acknowledged text from the same source; third, Turnitin showed up a great deal of standard academic phrases indicating good practice, while these could be compared to phrases with specific information that should be attributed to other authors. Notes were also provided for tutor guidance in using Turnitin, as further use of the software has indicated the need for very careful interpretation of the results. At the end of the study, student evaluations were also collected to build on results of the previous two years.

In the case of the dyslexic students, a pilot study was conducted over a period of three months. The participants in this pilot study were dyslexic students who had requested study-skills support at Student Services, and who had attended on a voluntary basis. Eleven students participated and 15 drafts of essays or sections of dissertations were submitted to Turnitin as part of the support provided in the writing process. The students were in their first, second or third years of study, and had different levels of knowledge of the conventions used in academic writing. The writing process itself (structuring, critical writing, referencing and editing essays, dissertations and reports) comprised a component of the study skills support for students with dyslexia, which also included effective strategies for time management, note-taking, reading, memory, and exam revision.

The areas highlighted by Turnitin were discussed, and students had the opportunity to rewrite drafts before submission. Strategies were explored with students on how to avoid poor referencing practice. For example, when taking notes for essays, the use of colour was considered a useful approach to distinguish borrowed text from one’s own. Effective strategies for paraphrasing were examined. The use of text-to-speech software such as TEXTHELP Read and Write Gold, to help with editing and ensuring correct transcription of quotes, was also discussed.

Results and analysis

Both groups of students seemed encouraged to engage more in their own learning.

International students

General results

With the international students, the in-depth discussion of the checklist in tutorial feedback gave students time to consider issues related to their own academic literacy, which had a positive effect on subsequent redrafting. Highlighting individual issues for each student seemed to promote understanding of academic conventions in a direct and relevant way. Significantly, there were no fails for plagiarism for the second time after using this software and the highest individual match for source use in second drafts was 4%, a relatively low match. Thus, the approach of using specific questions in the tutorial seemed effective in directing students to areas of their writing that needed improvement, while also encouraging them to think about the ways to improve it themselves.


Many students commented on the colourful visual impact of Turnitin and that they liked the instant comparison of texts. For example, one comment was: ‘It is very interesting how it makes an instant matching. I liked being able to see that and I could see the problems around my quotations’. Thus, one important aspect of using Turnitin is its memorable visual impact, as well as its ability to bring up the sourced material on the screen for direct comparison.


Student questionnaires completed by international students indicated a continued satisfaction with the use of Turnitin for formative tutorials. Sixty-six per cent of students stated that they found it very useful for thinking about both accurate citations and appropriate paraphrasing, and 55% found it useful for avoiding over-reliance on some references. The highest percentage of 73% stated that it was useful for understanding how to avoid plagiarism, with some comments as follows: ‘Turnitin is a good tool to understand the use of sources’; ‘Turnitin ensures a reduction in the risk of plagiarising’. These comments indicate a good degree of understanding of the value of Turnitin at this stage, especially in relation to attaining effective academic literacy.

Dyslexic students

General results

With the dyslexic students, Turnitin was useful in highlighting areas where there was poor referencing practice, and where further discussion of appropriate academic conventions with students was useful. Coloured sections drew the students’ attention to areas in the students’ work that matched those in the Turnitin database. Common errors included insufficient or even an absence of paraphrasing, misquotes or copying errors. Without the highlighting by Turnitin, these errors may not have been noticed by either tutor or student.

In an example of lack of sufficient paraphrasing, the student had acknowledged the source, but the extract from the text was not properly paraphrased. Large sections of the writing matched the original author’s work, and this had not been placed within quotation marks. Students were also sometimes unaware that quotes had to be verbatim, which led them to misquote inadvertently. An example of misquoting in a student’s work showed that although the student had placed the sentence in quotation marks and referenced it appropriately, the section had not been quoted exactly in some places. Turnitin highlighted these mismatches in colour. Furthermore, as some dyslexic students have a poor short-term memory, they may find it difficult to copy accurately, and Turnitin was useful in highlighting copying errors. For example, in one student’s work where the text in quotation marks did not match the original highlighted in Turnitin, ‘probability’ had been substituted with ‘profitability’, which altered the meaning of the quotation.

Colour coding

In comparison with the results presented in Carroll’s report (2008) where 77% of 6,289 pieces of coursework showed <25% of matching, in this pilot study, all 15 assignments from the 11 dyslexic students showed below 20% matching text. However, as Davis (2007) has pointed out, regardless of the colour assigned to the work, Turnitin remains valuable as a teaching tool.

Comparison of benefits

From the above, it can be seen that both groups benefited from help with paraphrasing and found the presentation of Turnitin reports effective. In the case of international students, more benefit was perceived with awareness of source use, citation and expression of their own voice, thus responding to their needs related to development of academic literacy. In the draft assignments from students with dyslexia, areas of weakness such as insufficient paraphrasing, misquoting and inaccurate copying may not have been detected without the Turnitin service.


Problems of under-matching, mismatching and over-matching text were experienced by both groups of students in the use of Turnitin. Among the evaluations collected by the international students, a complaint from those studying less common disciplines such as art history was: ‘Turnitin seems not (sic) to contain sources about my area’. Furthermore, many students stated: ‘Turnitin matched my words to some sources I did not use. This confused me’. Dyslexic students also commented that mismatching sources was a drawback, and that Turnitin did not match with illustrations or textbooks not held in its database; this was particularly problematic for first-year students who used textbooks as common sources of information. With international students, further frustration was caused by Turnitin making matches to words the students claimed as entirely their own: ‘There were sometimes I used my words in expressing an idea, but Turnitin said I copied the words. Maybe I just have the same ideas as another writer. After all, there is nothing new under the sun.’ These drawbacks to Turnitin seem unavoidable and are important to take into account with any interpretation of results. It should also be remembered that Turnitin is a text-matching tool rather than a ‘plagiarism detection tool’ as it is often labelled; its matching ability depends on the extent of its database and the algorithm it uses.


This study has extended previous research by illustrating additional uses for Turnitin and demonstrated the benefit of tutorial clinics for students who may be perceived as being at a disadvantage. It has shown that both groups can benefit from a focus on paraphrasing in the reports. In the case of international students, their knowledge and understanding of UK conventions, as well as their language usage seem to benefit from individual structured tutorial sessions using Turnitin. These sessions gave opportunities for students to engage more in their learning about many areas of source use, such as citation, quotation and paraphrasing, as well as to think about using their own voice, how they are using phrases, and taking care to acknowledge all borrowed text. Many students experienced the sense of a real turning point in understanding what they needed to do to use sources effectively.

The study has also shown that dyslexic students can benefit from these tutorials because Turnitin highlights areas of poor referencing practice, which can be discussed further with the tutor to provide support in acquiring writing and referencing skills. The students also have the opportunity to address areas of weakness and redraft before final submission of their assignments. Some of these areas may not have been detected without the submission to Turnitin. Students were able to apply the strategies they learnt in future writing assignments, which would enable them to feel more confident about their writing.

Significantly, both groups of students were positive about the results, and particularly clear that using Turnitin formatively had helped them to understand more about avoiding plagiarism and problems with academic literacy. At the same time, it is important to acknowledge the drawbacks of Turnitin and take particular care in the interpretation of its text matches.

Recommendations and further research

The recommendation of this study is to make more use of structured tutorials using Turnitin at the formative stage of writing to support learning, rather than at the assessment stage. It is also recommended that the tutor uploads the student work and interprets the reports carefully, and that formative feedback is best given individually to students.

Further research is suggested for both international and dyslexic students. In the latter case, the study here was undertaken as a pilot. It is the aim that a future study would be quantitative, include a larger number of students and record the specific types of areas of poor referencing practice common to first, second or third years in order to inform future tutorial strategies. Further research would also aim to record student voice using questionnaires and encourage dyslexic students to return to submit second drafts to Turnitin, particularly as it is now possible to set the parameters so that the first drafts are not saved on the database (saving one draft on the database distorts the report on the second draft). Finally, a follow-up investigation into the writing of both groups at a later stage of their studies could determine whether this intervention has a long-term effect on their academic writing skills.


Mary Davis teaches English for Academic Purposes. She is module leader for academic writing skills and an extended writing project, which she has redesigned through the use of online discussions, Turnitin and EndNote to enhance opportunities for student learning. She is also the university-wide dissertation checking co-ordinator. Her particular research interests are source use by international students, online communication and the use of new technology in learning and teaching, especially in relation to academic literacy.

Freda Yeang is Tutor in Study Skills for students with Dyslexia and Specific Learning Difficulties. She provides study skills support which includes essay and dissertation writing, to students who are in their first, second and third years of study, and also some postgraduate students. She is also a study skills tutor at Upgrade. Her research interests include writing difficulties at HE encountered by students with dyslexia.

Contact details

Mary Davis, Oxford Brookes International
IC311, Oxford Brookes International,
International Centre, Gipsy Lane Campus,
Oxford Brookes University OX3 0BP
Tel: x 3897
Fax: x 4377
e-mail: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
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Freda Yeang, Student Services

Tel: x 4927
Fax: x 4656
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