Teaching Writing with Sources

Undergraduate students face a challenging terrain when writing with sources. Finding, evaluating, organizing, synthesizing, and documenting sources are complex, interconnected activities central to academic writing. In their prior language arts courses, they often used the MLA style to incorporate ‘textual evidence’ in ‘research papers.’ As they cross the university curriculum, students confront a host of different strategies and expectations related to producing and documenting research writing. Students also meet instructors with differing attitudes regarding attribution and citation—some insisting on disciplinary conventions and techniques (whether ACS, APA, Chicago, IEEE, or NLM) and others who allow any consistent form of reference. 

While experienced researchers have developed a specialization in their preferred style that makes citation practice almost second nature, students can find themselves with a bewildering variety of tools and a limited understanding of their applications. Instructors can become frustrated with what they perceive to be breaches of academic ethics and careless errors. Likewise, students can become frustrated with what they see to be idiosyncratic, arbitrary, and trivial details.

Writing with sources often involves referencing (the act of referring to something else in writing), attribution (the management of legal rights to that thing), and citation (the conventional textual practices of identifying and recognizing reference and attribution). Helping students to understand these components of writing with sources can help them understand the hows and whys of a citation style, and thus better understand the reasons behind the technical details.

Helping Students Understand Why Sources Matter

When students read news articles, websites, blogs, and other media sources, they will often see quotations included in interviews, references to other content, and references to material outside the text. What they are less likely to see in these contexts is the formal attribution of a statement or an in-text citation and reference page. 

Academic writing is somewhat unique for the role of explicit reference and attribution as part of any writing task. The presence of explicit references and citation often signals that the text is attempting to advance a researched-based claim for a particular audience, rather than merely making information available for any reader.

It can be helpful to remind students that using sources serves many purposes.

Keyboard and screen showing a hand typing.

Citation of sources establishes the writing as a contribution to an existing discussion: References and citations develop the context for scholarly writing. Research-based writing often begins with an introduction that identifies existing conversations and controversies to suggest a novel contribution. Many genres include explicit reviews of literature to summarize the current state of the scholarly discussion. 

For instructors, a review of academic introductions in disciplinary writing can help students to recognize this function of source use and to recognize patterns of summary, paraphrase, and quotation typical of the field.

Use of sources establishes the credibility of the writer: In addition to setting context, including references signals to an audience that the writer is an informed participant in that conversation. Citations demonstrate that writers have ‘done their homework’ on what has already been said about a topic. Perhaps more importantly, citations provide documentary evidence to support the insights or ideas that a writer attempts to provide.

In class, instructors can help students to see the credibility-building aspect of citation by pointing to the use of peer-reviewed research as evidence. In some disciplines, levels of evidence establish a clear hierarchy, with randomized controlled trials and meta-analyses at the top and individual cases and observations at the bottom.

Citations of sources give credit to the participants in the discussion: Finally, citation and references show that the writer recognizes their debt to other writers and offers credit to those participants for their earlier insights. Diligent readers can use citations and references to gain further information about the topic and to make a contribution of their own.

Often instruction on citation focuses exclusively on this final function, the denotation of credit. From this vantage, an error in a citation is understood as a failure to acknowledge the work of others appropriately and is construed as a deliberate attempt to take credit for others’ work.

Attending to this final dimension of writing with sources exclusively from the perspective of ‘due credit’ inadvertently obscures a great deal about how academic writing works. While literary analyses and scientific papers both include citations, the function of a literary quotation as evidence for an argument may be quite different from the paraphrased summary of a previous lab experiment. As Susan Mueller describes in her analysis of the intricacies of citation styles,

Purdue University offers a comparison of common citation styles that can help students see the similarities and differences between styles and understand the reasons for those choices.

Teaching Students How to Write with Sources

Introduce students to how writers use sources in different types of disciplinary writing. Students quickly recognize differences between the writing in textbooks, in academic journals, and in other examples of professional writing. Helping them understand the different features of these texts can help clarify when and how sources are used and how citation works. In advanced courses, differences within these genres can be meaningful. For example, health science fields often introduce students to case studies, cohort studies, population studies, random controlled trials, systematic reviews, and meta-analyses as different and distinct forms of research. These levels of evidence have corresponding rules for reference and citation.

Discuss the functions of source material in readings for your course. Using one or more course readings, ask students to identify when and where writers choose to cite information. Questions you might ask of your students include:

  • How do source materials provide the context for writing?
  • If the reading is broken into sections?
  • How does the use of source material differ between them?
  • Are there examples of direct or indirect quotations in the text?
  • What features or needs might determine whether a researcher includes paraphrase or quotation?

When students become proficient in noticing some of the characteristic features of source use in your field,  instructors can call attention to variations and differences in source use between pieces of writing.

  • How do articles from different journals or sources vary in their citation practices?
  • How does the audience of a particular document seem to inform the use of source materials?

Noticing these differences can help students to appreciate the conventions of source use.

Library row with bookshelves on both sides and at end.

Allow students to use sources in small assignments and early drafts. Well before asking students to turn in a complete reference page, ask students to summarize a single source and compose a correct citation in a specified style. Exercises like this can reveal students’ understanding of what they are reading, their ability to summarize without borrowing text, and their recognition of features of a typical academic citation. Activities like this can be completed outside of class, through your Canvas page, and in brief in-class workshops.

Help students to identify common citation and attribution errors. Students can benefit from opportunities to identify and correct citation errors. If students produce common mistakes when determining what to cite or in the format of citations, instructors can use brief annotated examples to show how and where common errors emerge. Like the ones above, these exercises can even be incorporated as ‘warm-up’ activities at the beginning of class.

Provide students with opportunities to correct their own citation errors (and require correction!). When marking citation errors in drafts, avoid the temptation to correct them yourself. Instead, using a minimal marking strategy, you can identify the presence and number of errors in the citation but ask students to identify and correct their own mistakes. Self-made corrections in the context of their writing are the most likely to help students develop a critical eye for error.

Decide where citation matters, and limit the range of choices. In instances where citation style matters, it can be valuable to assign a single, relevant style sheet in your course. Keeping a single standard simplifies assessment and grading and creates a uniform standard. If it’s the case that the particular citation style is unimportant, consider whether the use of formal citation is necessary at all. Using web links instead of citations may be an appropriate alternative in some classroom contexts.