Helping Students Learn to Cite Their Sources
A MiddleWeb Blog
When I first started teaching writing in history class a number of years ago, I was totally focused on the students just getting their ideas out and being able to write on historical themes.
I wanted them to be able to internalize the basic structure of an argumentative essay, make an argument, and back it up. So I provided the sources. If the students used, say, the Constitution summary I provided the class, or a excerpt from Howard Zinn or Paul Johnson, or something found in their textbook, that was okay. So long as we used the source in the current unit of study and students didn’t go elsewhere for information, I didn’t worry about citations.
I was already asking them to do so many things – create an argument, find details to back it up, and write in a structured essay format. Creating citations on top of that was too much, I thought.
“Just back up your ideas”
This approach to historical writing worked quite well for a few years. Students were using the discrete materials from class to formulate a historical argument, back up their ideas, and then write four or five paragraph essays.
Meanwhile, in English class, the students were being taught MLA format for quotations. Whenever they insisted on using quotations in their writing, I would require them to cite the source of the quote using the same method they used in English class.
But I was still a long way from requiring both in-text and end-of-text citations. Sure, when they did a research project, I would make them turn in a list of “source websites,” but it was still nothing formal.
“Wait…Do you know which ideas are yours?”
Then I had an epiphany. One year I introduced a new essay at the end of a unit that hadn’t previously had an essay assessment. It seems that that unit didn’t have enough approachable text, because when it came time for the students to write their papers, instead of the usual details used to back up ideas – and these details looking more or less familiar across the board – I was getting mostly ideas born of Internet research.
I had previously required students, if they DID use the Internet at all, to cite their sources, but no one really ever resorted to online investigation. There was enough material from class to draw on. Until now.
I had always assumed that students understood what I meant when I told them to cite their sources (you know what happens when you assume…). They were doing it in English class, so I felt they’d be able to carry the skill over to history. I overlooked (and shouldn’t have) the difficulty students often have transferring their understanding and experience from one class to another.
So for this new essay assignment I was getting weak paraphrasing, with or without citations. With no accountability for where they were getting their ideas, students WERE backing up their thesis, but not crediting where they found the information. Before they went to the Internet, we all knew where the information came from, but now more accountability needed to happen.
Time to teach citations
I resolved that for our next essay I would explicitly teach them about citations. First and foremost, I wanted them to understand that the most important thing about citations is this: If it isn’t your idea, you need to cite it. No matter what.
This key understanding is more important for them to grasp than any particular citation format. I’ve written citations in many styles: MLA, APA, Turabian, you name it. And I still have to look up the exact formatting on the OWL Purdue site EVERY TIME. Whatever the style preference may be, the rationale never changes. Historians always credit the work and thinking of other historians.
You won’t be surprised that we struggled for awhile
My new goal became teaching the students that they must cite. If it isn’t common knowledge, if they read it somewhere, if it’s a quote, they MUST cite. I tried to make our citation method a bit simpler version of MLA, because what I really, really wanted them to figure out was that they needed to cite, not necessarily just memorize the specifics of citation styles.
The first time I implemented both in-text and end-of-text citations, students struggled with formatting. I made a flipped classroom video to help them review at home as well as a “cheat sheet” to walk them through it. Additionally, students could choose to use a resource like EasyBib (which, can I say, I really wish had been around when I was writing my thesis!) to help.
More important, students struggled with the concept of citing someone else’s idea. Quotations they understood. When they used a quotation, they totally got that they needed to cite their source. However, once they’d paraphrased another writer’s text, they didn’t really see why they would need to include them as a source. I didn’t expect this disconnect, and it was a concept that I needed to mention over and over: a writer’s original thoughts are his or her “intellectual property,” whether or not we present them verbatim.
“Common knowledge” was another issue that arose (one I am sure many history teachers will understand). As we teach a unit, certain ideas start feeling like common knowledge – something the students have always known. For example, during our unit on the westward expansion of the United States, students might say: “Well, I just KNOW why the U.S. got the Mexican Cession after the Mexican American War in 1848,” and we would have to talk about how they came to “know why.”
Citing class materials was another issue that came up: how do the students cite class handouts and teacher-shared notes? For in-text citations, I asked them just to put (Class Handout, “Expansion Overview”) or the like as a simple style for these things.
Again, the idea wasn’t just that they were able to cite perfectly according to MLA style, but that when they used an idea from a specific person or source document, or information that wasn’t common knowledge, they understood that they should cite a source.
In-class writing: putting it together
Now it was time to try something new. Over two days in class, I had my students work on a four paragraph, thesis-driven essay: What was the main cause of the Civil War? In addition to all the usual things I required (intro, thesis, body paragraphs with relevant supporting details, and conclusion), I also required in-text and end-of-text citations.
While the students didn’t get the proper formatting 100%, most students realized when they needed to use a citation. And if they needed extra help I was able to support them in Google Drive, where they post essay drafts as Google Docs and can get one-on-one collaborative help.
I’ve been pleased with the results of my citation lessons. I think I am sending stronger kids to high school this way. Will all of the students memorize the rules for MLA formatting? No. But they will realize that when they get an idea off the Internet that backs up their thesis, they need to cite their source. And they will have a basic idea of how to do that. That is a skill they will use the rest of their lives.
Do you require students to cite? At what ages? With what method?