Teaching Citation Practices

Citation is at the core of academic writing, and good citation practices are essential to our students’ academic success. All too often we receive papers that have too few citations, that incorporate material in an improper way, that may seem plagiarized to us, and/or whose citations are in the wrong format – or, if in the right format, done incorrectly and inconsistently. It can be tempting to blame these problems on poor time management or carelessness, or to chalk it up to an insulting neglect of the assignment. Often, though, our students simply just do not understand either the philosophy of citation, the particular style, or the practical rules for parentheses and proper punctuation in notes and references. For a student new to academic writing, the level of detail and precision required in Chicago style, for example, might seem almost silly, and unless we take it upon ourselves to explain why exactly a reference needs to be given in a certain way, chances are that it will remain strange and obscure to them. Below are some ideas for how to incorporate good citation practices:

  • A way of making students understand the importance of citation is to point to the academic paper as a piece of communication. Many of our students write their essays without realizing that they are writing for an audience and not into some abstract thin air. They need to realize that an essay is always written for somebody to read. One simple way to prepare students to understand citation is to remind students that, just as in oral communication we often challenge a speaker by asking questions about the logic of an argument, so too do readers ask questions as they read someone’s written work. In particular, a reader simply wants to know from exactly what source a writer draws a specific information. Communication is a question of trust, and incomplete citation breeds suspicion in a reader, something our students do not consider unless it is pointed out to them. Explaining the process of writing academic papers in terms of communication between a writer and a reader might also help prevent plagiarism. Some students do not understand that a critical reader, such as their professor, will ask questions of the paper its sources.
  • The importance of modeling citation practices cannot be overrated. It is essential to show students how proper citation needs to be done, and to explain why it is a fruitful way of engaging them in the practice. Accordingly, just as welders, nurses, lawyers, doctors and members of any other profession have specific practices and skills that set them apart from other professions, so does academia, and students need to be told that being able to cite properly is one of those skills. For example, showing them two versions of the same text, one with the proper citation and one without, helps them to realize the necessity of citing. One exercise using this form asks for the students to work in pairs. Each pair is handed the version with lackluster citation (incomplete, missing, wrong, etc.) and each pair is asked to conduct a careful analysis of the text. Students should be asked to write their analysis on a separate sheet using examples answering questions such as: What is missing? Where is the citation wrong? What is their impression of the analysis offered in the paper? This should lead to a class discussion of the elements of citation. Following that discussion, the version with complete and correct citation should be handed out and subjected to analysis. How do the pair’s findings correspond with the correct version? How does correct citation change their opinion of the paper?
  • It can be a good idea to use part of a class section on peer review of papers once the students have papers containing citations. Ask a group of three or four students to compare each other’s papers focusing solely on the mechanics of citation. If provided with a set of directions outlining exactly what the students are to look for in the papers (from the macro to the micro level – from Are there enough citations? and Are they in the right positions? to Are the parentheses, commas, periods, and bibliographical information in the right positions?) it will be easier for students to recognize mistakes when they see them, something even experienced writers sometimes have trouble with.
  • For some professors it has proved helpful to provide the students with a reference sheet with examples of how to reference a one-author book, a two-author book, a journal article, a newspaper article, a website and so forth. Though for some this might seem like handholding on something that college students should be able to do on their own, for others it has eliminated any excuse for not getting it right. Students should also be pointed towards the entries on citation on the students component of this website.
  • Responding to students’ mistakes in citations can be a tedious and frustrating experience. Instead of simply correcting every wrong comma, period, and misplaced parenthesis, it might be better to simply correct only one of each mistake and then ask for the student to perform a complete revision of the citations. If supplied with a reference sheet, as suggested above, the student ought to be able to correct the paper and, through that process, incorporate the citation practice.
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