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Paula’s Design Narrative: Referencing Research Papers for Undergraduates

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Paula Dumas
5 April 2016

Narrator: Teaching Assistant at a University


This took place at a university in 2009 and 2011. I was teaching 3 weekly tutorials for a large history survey course with 12 to 15 British and international first-year undergraduate students in each tutorial, only some of whom were history majors. The meetings took place in small seminar rooms on campus. The course required all students to write four 2000-word essays. These needed to be properly referenced to avoid charges of plagiarism but some students had never referenced sources before. All students were given information on citing sources in the Course Handbook at the beginning of the course but many students failed to cite their sources following the proper format, and some included as few as zero citations in their first essays.


I wanted my students to understand why they needed to reference the sources they had used in their research in their essays and how to accurately cite each source in both the footnotes and bibliography sections of their papers. 10% of the paper’s grade was devoted to accurate referencing, but a finding of plagiarism would result in a failing grade for the paper. I wanted them to pass the essay and achieve a passing score on the referencing section of the assessment form.


Prior to the first essay, I had my students read over the relevant sections of the Course Handbook in tutorial with me and gave them an opportunity to ask any questions about the first assignment. The first round of essays demonstrated that most students were unable to cite their sources in the required format. Some had not included any footnotes.

I wrote out or corrected the format of the references in the footnotes and bibliographies of each essay and included a written explanation for those who received a fail on the referencing section of the essay assessment sheet. Students who did not include any citations were asked to see me after the tutorial, where I walked them through the process of inserting a footnote in Microsoft Word by demonstrating on my laptop step by step. These students used footnotes in their subsequent essays.

I then devoted 25 minutes of a tutorial to referencing. In preparation, I chose approx. 15 sources, including monographs, essay collections, and journal articles, and brought them to the class. I also typed out a sample bibliography that included all of these sources, and on the flip side of the page wrote out sample footnotes (both initial and subsequent entries), and made enough copies of the hand out for every student to have one.

Once in class, I spoke about the importance of referencing sources and why we include footnotes in history essays. I then asked every student to pull out a new piece of paper and a pen as well as their Course Handbook. I laid out all of the sources in the middle of table and asked each student to take one. I asked them to flip to a random page, pretend that they had just used a piece of information from that page in their essay, and to now write a full footnote entry for that source using the information in the Course Handbook and their peers as guides. This continued for 10 minutes as they circulated the different sources. One or two students sat there not sure what to do, so I circled the room and made myself available to help, stopping by the ones sitting still and asking if they wanted help getting started.

After 10 minutes, I asked them to stop and begin to write up a complete bibliography using all of the sources they had just footnoted. This made them more aware of the different purposes and information included in footnotes versus a bibliography. Finally, I passed out the hand out and asked the students to compare their references to my own.


My objectives were met. Students wanted to cite their sources and were paying attention to proper formatting for their references. Referencing marks for the remaining 3 essays improved. No essays were handed in with less than 5 footnotes for the remainder of the year and all essays also included a bibliography. No students were charged with plagiarism.

In some cases, students began footnoting almost every sentence and needed further guidance and reassurance that their own opinions, while informed and supported by the work of others, was simply that – their opinion – and that this did not need to be cited. Others needed reassurance that they would not be charged with plagiarism for an incomplete footnote or even a missing footnote or two.  


This experience encouraged me to look at ways to create more engaging activities for students and showed me that authentic, engaging activities can be dreamed up for the teaching of even the most monotonous of tasks i.e. writing out footnotes. I continued to use this exercise in each of my tutorials each year.

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Susan Clements
1:48pm 11 April 2016

Referencing can be quite daunting to students who have not come across academic writing before.  I liked your approach to helping students understand why it is necessary.  I thought you supported the students very well, by giving them the opportunity to try it out and also providing written examples as well as being available to help those who were struggling.  This must have increased the students' confidence, and the evidence of their understanding was in the fact that they were able to reference correctly in their work.

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