Using Turnitin to Address the Learning Needs of 6th- and 12th-Grade Students
Mark Vital, English and AP Psychology Teacher
Advanced Math & Science Academy
Vital uses Turnitin to ensure consistent, in-depth, and effective instruction in two vastly different learning contexts. For his 6th graders, it is about building a solid foundation of stepping stones earlier through increased student engagement and the accessibility of their online portfolio. For the 12th graders, it is about providing targeted FRQ feedback to aid the student's understanding of the AP grading system.
Turnitin: Welcome to the Turnitin Educator Spotlight Series! Joining me today is Mark Vital, an English and AP Psychology teacher at Advanced Math & Science Academy and a Grading & Feedback Winner for the Turnitin All-Stars Award Program. Welcome Mark, thanks for joining us today.
Could you tell us a little bit more about yourself?
M.V.: Sure. My name is Mark Vital. I’m an English teacher and a psychology teacher, both at the Advanced Math and Science Academy. I teach 6th grade English and 12th grade AP Psychology.
Turnitin: So just broadly speaking, how do you use Turnitin in those two different classes? What features are you using?
M.V.: Because I teach 6th grade and 12th grade, it really differs from one class to the other. At our school, each 6th grader’s responsible for seven major pieces of writing, persuasive writing, compare and contrast, and so forth, and all of their major pieces of writing must be uploaded into Turnitin.com. I use the originality, and I also use the actual grading of it. For 6th graders, I use the majority of the comments that are already available. That’s basically it for 6th graders.
Turnitin: Why is Turnitin so important to be used in the 6th grade?
M.V.: Today, too many of our students want to use the easy way out, and the internet is the easy way out. They can basically hop online and buy any subject, any essay on any topic and copy and paste anything. With Turnitin.com, we tell them upfront and we show them upfront. First, we talk about how to properly reference something off the internet or reference a primary source, and we teach all of that in the beginning. They know Turnitin.com is a deterrent for cheating, so there is no “easy” in completing the writing assignment, because they know that with the help of Turnitin.com anything that they copy from somewhere is going to show up.
Turnitin: What about on the formative feedback front? What are some strategies and approaches that you have in helping your 6th graders?
M.V.: For my 6th graders, we used to have portfolios on all of our kids, and basically I would correct a traditional paper--just like a lot of people still do--and then they would get their feedback, and they would throw their paper into a portfolio. I’m not even real sure that the majority of them even read the feedback on the original paper. They just basically flip to the third page, see they got a B+, and they say that’s not so bad, and in the portfolio it would go.
Now, because everything is kept so clean on Turnitin.com, they must go in and identify specific concerns that I had on the previous paper and then address them on the homework assignment moving forward. Right now, we’re on a first draft of a short story, but before they turn in their final draft, they’re going to have to go in and look at their persuasive writing piece that they did last and identify three things that I addressed before and what strategies have they used this time around to make sure they didn’t fall to the same mistake? So with Turnitin.com this is accessible, they can be in Timbuktu and hop on there and find out the mistakes they made on a previous paper. Students are definitely more engaged using Turnitin.com, because as soon as they go in to upload a new document for a new writing assignment, the previous documents are right there in their face. I’d be willing to bet that every kid goes back into a document at least a half a dozen times.
Turnitin: Why is that type of feedback--engagement with the type of comments you provide--so important for a 6th grader, and is it challenging given that they’re in 6th grade?
M.V.: It’s so important, because writing builds upon itself. There are certain elements of everyone’s writing that have to be done well in 6th grade so that they can then go on to 7th grade and build upon it, and then go into 8th grade and build upon that. So, there are stepping stones that every writer must have initially. For example, we use MLA formatting here, so they must have MLA formatting down, and then they have to have a hook, they have to have a thesis paper. There are basic elements of all writing in 6th grade that I’m trying to teach them here for the first time, because they come from a million different 5th grade schools all coming into our school here. So, all these basic skills that most high school writers have down pretty pat we try to teach them in 6th grade. If they don’t have a good thesis for their persuasive writing, how are they going to have a thesis for their research paper?
Turnitin: Shifting gears a bit, could you talk about the challenges you have around instructing your 12th grade students, and how you’ve used Turnitin to drive your instruction towards what they need to learn?
M.V.: I don’t know what I would do without Turnitin.com. I really mean that with all sincerity. This is my first year teaching it too, so I’m a babe in the woods, but there is so much more work involved in teaching an AP class than there is in a traditional class, even in an honors class. Just in a two-week period, I have six major pieces of writing. I have to be very organized. I need to have a syllabus for each unit, and an assessment. In that syllabus I need to have everything linked to sources and then into Turnitin.com.
So, Turnitin.com helps me tremendously keep up with the kids--so they’re getting feedback almost within maybe 24 to 48 hours after they turn it in. And now, what saves me even more time is I’m doing audio by recording voice comments. With the audio they listen to the whole three minutes, and typically their grade is given at the end, so they have to listen to the feedback before they actually get the grade.
So they write me a three-page essay. Before I go into the essay, I’ll have a little checklist and a 3x5 card right next to my screen. Then, as I’m reading the essay out loud to myself, I’m giving them feedback based on my checklist. You know, “Your first paragraph, you forgot to mention this,” “You did this,” as I’m going down this checklist. Obviously they don’t see the checklist, but I have that checklist to make sure that all my audio feedback is the same for each of my students. I can go through a whole class of 25 essays in, I don’t know, 30 to 40 minutes, where historically it would take me maybe three hours, and when you have so many assignments to go through, it just helps me tremendously.
Turnitin: What are some specific assignments you have in your AP class and how do you provide feedback to your students?
M.V.: We have these essays called FRQs, “Frequent Response Questions,” and when they take their AP test, they’re going to have five of these, and they’re essay questions, but each of the questions typically has a point value to them, and it could range anywhere between six to nine points, and the kids don’t always know what the points are for. So historically--like when I would go in and correct an FRQ--I would go through like any other teacher and drag all my comments over there, and then I’d say, “Okay, you got seven out of eight.” They would say, “How did I get the points?” Then I’d have to go spend time in class and go over what part of that—well, now what I do, and this is great, is I copy and paste the entire rubric from the AP course right into a comment box, and then as I read through their essay, I just put “Yes, you met the objective of that point.” Okay, let’s go to the next point. “No, you didn’t.”
One of the points on the FRQ might be a student has to clearly give you the definition of the term and provide an example, and if they don’t provide both, they don’t get the point. So I might say, “You gave a good example but you never really defined what it is,” and then I’ll tell them in the comment box, “You didn’t give an example, so you didn’t get the point.” They know exactly how they got six out of eight potential points, and these are two things that I should have done on that report. So being able to give them specific feedback on each of these FRQs is so pivotal, and they love it. They love Turnitin.com, and so do I, because it saves me time, and I know I’m giving them good feedback.
Turnitin: As a final question, could you sum up why Turnitin is important to use in a 6th grade context, as well as a 12th grade context?
M.V.: When you get to our school, we really push the button and that acts as an imperative in how to properly source research--either into a persuasive essay or research paper, whatever it is. It’s so critically important. What they learn in 6th grade is only going to build upon and use more and more as they go forward. I mean, you wouldn’t believe our curriculum in 9th and 10th grade, and by the time they get there, they become experts on how to do research, and a lot of that’s attributed to doing it properly through Turnitin.com.
Turnitin: And then for 12th graders, why is Turnitin so important?
M.V.: Well, 12th graders--at least my 12th graders--are all over the place. I mean, they are working. They’re playing sports. They’re doing a million different activities, and it’s nice for them, it helps them and their teacher to be organized. Some of my kids, they do their work at midnight, so it’s easy to just know that all of your assignments for AP psychology are all on Turnitin.com. I can hop on Turnitin.com, and what historically has taken me two to three hours to correct papers now takes me less than an hour, and--this is the cool part--the feedback is more valuable. It’s more readily accessible. It is more directed towards the AP exam. With the Psychology AP exam, now my feedback is directed directly towards that goal, so the kids are getting more valuable feedback, they’re getting it faster, and it’s more organized. It can’t be any better, not that I can think of anyway.
Turnitin: Thank you so much for taking the time to share your experience with us. I’ve been talking to Mark Vital, English and AP Psychology teacher from Advanced Math & Science Academy.