Shouldn’t They Already Know How to Cite?

Teaching Students to Incorporate Research

“My students don’t know how to incorporate source material into their work. They don’t even correctly cite their sources. They should know how to do this by now!” This is one of the most common complaints we hear from our colleagues across disciplines. Certainly it can be frustrating to get a batch of papers that takes us by surprise. At the same time, if students really don’t know how to do these tasks (and it’s not just that they rushed or misunderstood the instructions), having a more accurate sense of their prior knowledge can guide our course designs.

We may even want to reconsider whether it’s true that they “should” know how to do these tasks well. Even a student who did some researched writing in high school and took a first-year college composition course can still be considered a novice writer. They are still near the beginning of the process of developing their skills in selecting, understanding, and evaluating academic sources. They are still learning how to use source material to support their own points; how to incorporate source material smoothly into their work by quoting, paraphrasing, or summarizing; and how to cite and document sources in accordance with disciplinary conventions. Clearly, these are not one skill but a portfolio of skills that develop over time through many opportunities for practice and feedback. If we’re honest, a few of these tasks can sometimes be challenging for those of us who do them professionally.

In addition, in their high school English classes or first-year composition courses, students may learn some general approaches to improving their writing processes, communicating with new and varied audiences, supporting their own claims with reasoning and evidence, taking their first steps into college-level researched writing, etc., but they are not yet fluently writing in a particular discipline (e.g., biochemistry, musicology, political science, etc.). They may not be familiar with the genres or research methods typical in the field, or with the uses of evidence, the types of analysis, the citation style, or with other disciplinary conventions. As experts in our fields, students need us to guide their development in doing that work; if we don’t provide ongoing instruction in our courses, and some opportunities for practice and feedback, students’ skills won’t continue to develop each year.

Most of us feel pressed for time in our teaching, so we can prioritize by incorporating the kinds of support that students need most. Here are three quick tips for helping students improve at incorporating source material from research:

  1. Clarify the tasks. What do you want students to use sources to do? Are they supposed to use sources to explain what is already known about a topic? Or as evidence to support their own claims? Are they supposed to use a theoretical lens from a source to analyze real-world examples? Are they supposed to use sources to support their interpretation of something? Clearly explaining exactly what we want students to use the source material to do, and showing them examples of what that looks like, will help them better understand the purpose the source material should serve in their work.
  2. Provide opportunities to practice. In your field and in the type of work that students are assigned to do, how do authors decide whether to quote, paraphrase, or summarize? Whatever the rules or traditions are, make them explicit for students. Then, you can provide opportunities for them to practice paraphrasing, which is typically the most challenging option for students. They need to practice paraphrasing using effective methods rather than ineffective ones like copying source material into their work and changing a few words. Helping them improve their approach to paraphrasing can also help them avoid plagiarism.
  3. Help students use a style guide. Learning a new citation style is an overwhelming task for most students. They may be reassured if you explain that they don’t actually have to memorize every rule; they can just look up how to cite and document their sources in a style guide. Of course, the style guide itself can be intimidating, so most students need an overview: Why do we cite and document sources at all? What do we need to cite and where? What kinds of information are included in a style guide? How is the style guide organized? What is the best searchable, online version students can use for free? How do they look things up? Where can they find example papers (or other projects) in which sources are cited and documented correctly? You can spend a little class time on this, make a video about it to share with students, or link them to an existing video. You can also devote some class time to allowing them to check their citations against an example or to use a style guide to give one another feedback.

If you’d like support to design opportunities for students to learn how to incorporate research into their own work, we would be happy to help! You can email us at for a consultation or to request a workshop. We look forward to working with you.