Nancy Ruffell

Using Turnitin to Empower Students to Become Life-Long Learners

Nancy Ruffell, English Teacher and Department Head
Snowflake High School


Nancy Ruffell uses Turnitin's Originality Report to help students integrate sources, paraphrase properly, and analyze existing scholarship. Through this process, Ruffell has empowered students to see that their research papers add to the academic conversation and to become life-long learners.

Turnitin: Welcome to the Turnitin Educator Spotlight Series! My name is Kenneth Balibalos. Joining me today is Nancy Ruffell, English Teacher at Snowflake High School and an Academic Integrity Winner for the Turnitin All-Stars Award Program. Welcome Nancy, thanks for joining us today.

Could you tell us a little bit more about yourself?

N.R.: Okay. My name is Nancy Ruffell, and I am first and foremost a high school English teacher. I work at Snowflake High School in Snowflake, Arizona, and I also teach a dual enrollment class, where my students get both high school and community college credit--so then I work for Northland Pioneer College as well. I'm also the department head, and I'm also the administrator for our school for Turnitin.

I'm helping them learn how to craft their thoughts and their minds. I'm bringing them into the conversation—making them feel like what they have to add is interesting and important and that they have grown as a human being. If we're talking about people being life-long learners and if they're going to be adding to the world and going to be the ones running it, they have to see that.
Nancy Ruffell, Snowflake High School

Turnitin: What has Turnitin done for you and your students, either in elevating the level of information and research being done in assignments or in being able to integrate technology into your curriculum?

N.R.: I had been teaching dual enrollment. I've been teaching for several years, and we teach research papers, of course, to a variety of different age groups, so I was always looking for a way that students could see how they were integrating information into their research papers, because it's really hard. How do I make things fit in, and how do I get kids to use primary documents? I found that Turnitin--what it did for my students--is they could look at their own work. Once we started using it, they could upload their paper, then they could look at their work and see how things could come from a bunch of different places; they got it from one place, and yet it was matching a whole bunch of other places on Turnitin. And over time, what I've found is I've been able to help them as I've gotten more comfortable with it. I've been able to go in and show them--open it up and say, “Okay, here's the place where you got it from, but see, here's other places it came from.”

So it's like looking at the conversation and seeing that these sources are all over the world. People are borrowing and using and rewriting and paraphrasing, and students are seeing what they write in their papers—and how it shows match or originality in Turnitin—as a discussion of how they're entering the conversation. They are also seeing how plagiarism is both a violation--because you're not giving someone else credit for what they've done--and a disservice to themselves, because they're trying to say that they're not part of the conversation. They are the conversation. I've really found that that's an important element, and that's how it elevates their own work, because they're seeing their assignment differently. They're not seeing themselves as just pounding out this paper that's going to be from some random teacher and it's never going to live again, that it's just is out there gathering dust. Now it's more of a conversation and part of a brain trust, if you will.

Turnitin: That’s a very interesting point you brought up. Why is it so important to loop students into the conversation, and what does it do for them?

N.R.: Well, I think, number one, a lot of teachers, in some ways they think of a research paper just as an exercise in torture both for themselves and for their students. Sometimes I don't think they see it as much as I am helping them to learn how to craft their thoughts and their minds—bringing them into the conversation, making them feel like what they have to add is interesting and important, and that they have learned and grown as a human being. If we're talking about people being life-long learners and if they're going to be adding to the world and they're going to be the ones running it, then they have to see that. Turnitin gives them that opportunity, I think, to feel that they're part of that bigger conversation and that their document is going to live forever.

Turnitin: Given where students are at in today's digital age—with Facebook and the ubiquity of the internet— have you changed the way you’ve taught digital literacy and proper research practices to meet students with where they are at?

N.R.: We've been shifting a little bit as far as attitudes, so there has been a little bit of that discussion about what critical thought are we bringing in. Most of the time that I've been teaching in the last 10 years or so, I've had discussion with my students about using the Internet as a source and about finding quality sources and discussing the fact that certain things feed off one another.

For example, there's Wikipedia, which often gets a really bad rap. My comment to my students often is that part of the problem with the wiki is that anybody can change it. However, it doesn't mean that everything on it is wrong. The problem is you have to be smart about what you're looking at. If you want to find sources, sometimes a place to start are the sources for Wikipedia. You can start in some interesting places. I actually did a little project one time with that, starting from a page just on genetic manipulation, then I used some sources and went out to other sources. We often talk about the levels of different sources that you can use and then the SEER Rubric, talking about those levels of how accurate is a source and how scholarly it is.

We've had those conversations, so it's changed a little bit how my students have to validate their sources. I've gone to a new kind of thing where I do an annotated bibliography, where they have to defend how good their source is, that it is scholarly, that it does have something more to it than just going out and randomly Googling. They have to critically look at their source and say is this really helping my argument. One of the other problems we look at is can they acknowledge the opposition, so is this an opposing source, or is this a source that does support my argument? So that's changed, because they're expected to look at that. And then when I'm looking at it through Turnitin, then I'm going to be seeing these levels of information. It's more than just using GradeMark and giving them an opportunity see their sources, it's brought some other tools to my tool belt, I guess you could say.

Turnitin: Great. As a last question, could you summarize, in terms of academic integrity, what is your instructional approach and how has Turnitin helped you as a tool to help your students?

N.R.: It lets them know that it's not okay to borrow somebody's ideas without giving them credit. It also helps them see that paraphrasing is really hard to do and it takes effort, because they'll say, "I was paraphrasing." "No, you weren't. Can you see how all these colors happen?" I must admit that I almost always have my students upload at least a week before, and I have them look at it, then I expect them to upload again because they're going to see things that they didn't see before. Either they see that they have no match at all—sometimes that's problematic because it means they have not really used sources like they should— or they see if they've overdone it or they haven't paraphrased enough. So, I see that as a really important tool for them, to be able to work through their own writing. It's not a "gotcha" tool. It's how do I write better and stronger.

I'm working with high school kids. I'm not working with people out there that are going to be writing in scholarly journals tomorrow. It's going to be a few days, but it's good to show them how they can grow and how they can improve what they're doing, and just giving them an opportunity with all those tools that they can use to make their writing stronger. I think that's the whole point of education.

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