Teaching students to write with sources: Affirmative approaches to references, attribution, and citation

Daniel Emery

Undergraduate students face a challenging terrain when writing with sources. 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, they confront a host of different strategies for incorporating summary, paraphrase, and quotation, many new and unfamiliar ways of producing research writing, and a myriad of documentation styles. Students also meet instructors with differing attitudes regarding citation—some insisting on disciplinary conventions and styles (whether ACS, APA, Chicago, IEEE, or NLM) and others who admit any style. While experienced researchers have developed specialization that makes citation almost second nature, students can find themselves with a bewildering variety of tools and a limited understanding of their applications.

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).

How can instructors help students to understand the use of sources in their disciplines and become proficient in writing with sources? This tip offers strategies for helping students learn to use sources beyond simply requiring research writing and a reference page.

Begin the discussion of sources with reading

Introduce students to how sources are used 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 students to see the different textual 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 as few as one course reading, ask students to identify when and where writers choose to cite information. Here are some useful questions that will help students consider source use: 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 quotation 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 common features of source use in your field, call attention to variations and differences in source use between pieces of writing. Again, here are some useful questions to pose: 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.

Provide opportunities to practice source use, attribution, and citation

Give students the opportunity 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 errors 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 one’s above, these exercises can even be incorporated as ‘warm up’ activities at the beginning of class.

Provide students opportunities to correct their own errors (and require correction!)

When marking citation errors in drafts, avoid the temptation to correct students’ citation errors. Using a minimal marking strategy, you can identify the presence and number of errors in citation but ask students to spot their own mistakes. Self-made corrections in the context of their own 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 in lieu of citation may be an appropriate alternative in some classroom contexts.

Further Resources

Further Support

See the Teaching with Writing pages on the Center for Writing website for teaching resources, including sample assignments and syllabi. Each semester, our Teaching with Writing series offers free workshops and discussions. Visit us online. To schedule a phone, email, or face-to-face teaching consultation, click here.