‘Routledge (58) argues…’ is a reference taken from a student essay. The student referenced the publisher instead of the author and the page number instead of the year of publication. Many other examples could be listed that indicate just how much students struggle to reference the academic literature correctly.
Most students first encounter the need for engaging with the academic literature, and for referencing it properly, at university. In their essays, many of them initially struggle with this crucial academic skill: when should they put a reference – after every sentence or only sporadically? Where can they find certain bits of information such as the city where a book was published or the page range of a journal article?
It is clearly not enough to simply give students a set of referencing guidelines to follow. Rather, as teachers we must try to determine which teaching formats are most appropriate in teaching students how to reference the academic literature.
For my article in Politics, I collected information about first-year students’ voluntary attendance at lectures, seminars and one-on-one tutorials devoted specifically to referencing, and their use of an online quiz that gave them feedback on their answers. This information was mapped onto a new measure of the referencing skills that students subsequently displayed in their first essays. Five dimensions of these skills were assessed: range of reading; bibliography; references in the text; consistency of referencing; and when to include a reference.
The results were surprising: attendance at lectures and seminars, or attempting the online quiz, had no effect on students’ ability to reference. The only teaching event that had any impact was a one-on-one tutorial: students who sought the help of their teachers displayed much better referencing skills than those who did not.
To shed more light on this puzzle, students were interviewed about their experience. Those who had made use of tutorials appreciated the fact that, unlike lectures or seminars, a tutorial could be arranged for when they needed the advice, that is to say, when they were actually working on their essay.
This suggests that we should pay attention not just to how we teach students how to reference but also when we teach them. As a possible way forward, in the following academic year, I recorded a lecture specifically devoted to referencing for first-year students to consult online when they needed it. This radically improved students’ referencing compared to the previous cohort.