Mary Lawson

Promoting Academic Integrity in an Open Learning Environment

Mary Lawson, Professor of English
Houston Community College


Lawson uses Turnitin not merely as a plagiarism checker, but as a tool to help students in the writing process. For Lawson, the most important thing is that the students learn and talk about effective writing practices and not that she catches her students cheating.

Turnitin: Welcome to the Turnitin Educator Spotlight Series! My name is Kenneth Balibalos. Joining me today is Mary Lawson, Professor of English at Houston Community College and an Academic Integrity Honorable Mention for the Turnitin All-Stars Award Program. Welcome Mary, thanks for joining us today.

Could you tell us a little bit more about yourself?

M.L.: Yes. My name is Mary Lawson. I teach at Houston Community College Southwest in Houston, Texas. Currently I am teaching English 1301 and English 1302.

Turnitin: How are you using Turnitin?

As I've gotten more mature in my teaching, I wanted to use Turnitin to aid students in the writing process. I feel very strongly that writing has to be a process. Being able to sit down, we're able to talk about, 'Why would you use this quote? How could you use it more effectively?' And we're able to talk about why it's important.
Mary Lawson, Houston Community College

M.L.: I first started using about eleven or twelve years ago. I used it purely at that point just as a plagiarism checker. I don’t think the school where I was using it had a lot of access beyond that. As I’ve gotten, I guess, more mature in my teaching, I decided that I wanted to use Turnitin to aid my students in their writing process. I feel very strongly that writing has to be a process. So I use We start always with a rough draft and then at that point I guide my students through and how it can help them in their revisions.

We go in, my students and I look at their essays, but the big thing we do look at is the plagiarism issue, because plagiarism can be so easy to fall into if you’re not careful with it. So, I show them how to use the highlighted sections to cite their own work and always make sure to tell them sometimes Turnitin won’t pick things up, and you have to go back on your own and check those things. Then as we’re moving into peer reviewing the rough draft, they’re able to go back then and check themselves.

I think that’s a really valuable tool. They have their Writing Center and online writing labs that they can send things to, but the self-reflection I think is a really important part of the process, because so many of them don’t even understand what plagiarism is. To be able to check yourself and to start to have those conversations with them about appropriate and inappropriate citations and being able to have those conversations is just very, very important, to us.

I’ve actually had students come back who have passed me and gone into other classes and in their history classes or whatever classes they’re in where their teachers don’t use, and they’ll say, “Is it okay if I run my paper through your class just to check myself, to see if I have plagiarism issues?” So, I have kind of a separate class set up there for those students, so that they can in the future still continue using it to check themselves.

Turnitin: What factors drove you to create this course in a low-pressure environment?

M.L.: Originally, I would stand at the front of the room and lecture on plagiarism for two days, and honestly, it just didn’t sink in. I’m not sure it would have sunk in for me either, just to sit and listen to someone talk for a while about that. So now, I introduce the concept, and we talk about citation. Being able to sit down—sometimes it’s even a one-on-one thing, sometimes it’s in a whole class setting, sometimes it’s small group, just depending on what the class needs—we’re able to talk about: “Why did you use this quote?” “I can see that you quoted it here, but how can we use it more effectively?” “How can we cite it more effectively so that you’re not running into issues later?” We’re able to talk about why it’s important.

I mean, you see it all the time in the news, journalists or other people in academics who have plagiarized and then it comes up later and they get into trouble for it. We talk about how plagiarism can affect you in the future. So just having that open conversation where they don’t see me as, “Oh, I’m out to try to get you and catch you and don’t do this or you’re going to get in trouble” kind of thing. I can say and give them every single opportunity along the way to check themselves.

Honestly, it has just decreased my plagiarism so much because they see that it’s not a tool that I’m hiding from them. They can see it themselves. So when we go back--if there is a plagiarism issue in the final draft--we can go back, and I can show it to them. But, I think the most important thing is they learn and not that I try to catch them cheating.

Turnitin: So what do you do in situations where you need to instruct a student who may be weak in terms of research citation practices.

M.L.: We’d schedule an appointment, and we would sit down and I would show them what says is needed. And there will always be the students who say “Well, I didn’t cheat. I didn’t take it from anywhere.” I show them too, because they’re very, very concerned about that at the beginning usually. “Well, what if I said the exact same thing as someone else said?” And, I always tell them, “You are not going to say it in the exact same way as someone else did.” The words you hear is how they feel.

But then I’ll walk them through other sample papers, so that by the time we get to the one-on-one, they can see where they maybe copied too closely. And then that person and I can talk about whether we want a quote here or would it be okay to paraphrase it? And if you were trying to paraphrase it, how can we paraphrase more effectively so that you’re not running into this issue. I’m able to sit down with them and show them--here’s a better way to do it.

Turnitin: Could you also walk me through how you are using peer review in the context of academic integrity? What has that done for your students and why are you doing it this way?

M.L.: Sure. We usually have a multi-step peer review process. We always start with and using the peer review there. I ask several questions within a peer review program about citations. I’ll say, “One of my questions always is check every single sentence in the paper that you’re reading. Check all the highlighted sentences. Are they all cited appropriately, either in simple phrases or a paragraph with documentation or both if needed?”

Obviously, at that point, we have those discussions about how to do those things in class. That’s one of the requirements is that they catch each other, because I tell them, “If two people read an essay and neither one of you pick up the citation issue, that’s a problem and that means that I need to go back and re-teach that.” I think that it’s important for them to be able to catch it, because being able to catch someone else’s plagiarism and keep them from failing an essay will then in turn teach you how to catch your own.

Turnitin: How has that educational mindset aided you or helped you promote academic integrity? Why is promoting academic integrity so important?

M.L.: I have an incredible number of ESL students in my classes, and one of the things that’s very difficult for them to understand is--well if I use it--they think that if they use the work that’s a form of flattery. I have to really work with them to show that it’s not just about using it, it’s also about giving that person credit. So, that’s how the discussions that we have get started. I start very locally with how would you feel if this happened to you. Because, they don’t see sharing their essays as bad. They think they’re helping someone. But when you put it in terms of stealing or taking something that you haven’t worked for, I think they understand a little better.

I think part of that is teaching them the skills that they’re going to use in other classes and in the work world later. So teaching them how to avoid plagiarism, I just think it’s something that they’re going to use everywhere and on into their future lives. So, I think it’s a very important part of education.

Turnitin: As a final question, could you summarize for me how you see Turnitin within the whole writing process? Why is using it important?

M.L.: It has so many different functions that they can use. It allows them to keep their work, it allows them to be critical of their own work. We use all the time in my class. I pull up samples on I show them with the plagiarism check, what it is, how to avoid it. We do reflection pieces through on their writing. We use Peer Mark. We do the rough draft and the final draft.

Really everything they do in my class goes through Some of the summaries and the general, the smaller assignments don’t go through there, but all of their major assignments go through, no matter what it is. I am a huge proponent of the writing process. I think that all writing is a process, and I think that being critical of yourself and reflecting on your own writing is a very large part of that process. allows me to have a place where they can experience all parts of that process while having that academic integrity that’s so important.

Turnitin: Thank you so much for taking the time to share your experience with us. I’ve been talking to Mary Lawson, Professor of English at Houston Community College.