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Engage First-Year Students Through Creative Citation Instruction: Home

So Many Citation Styles!

Most students arrive at college knowing two main citation styles: MLA and APA. Depending on the college class they take and research projects assigned, students will likely be exposed to many more discipline-specific citation styles. Knowing how a citation is composed of its various bibliographic components will be key in allowing students to transfer from one style to the next. Also, simply exposing students to the wide variety of styles they may be faced with could be an important primer for college.

Screenshot of MIlne Library's citation styles libguides

Deciphering Citations

In order for students to go from print bibliography (of relevant articles and books for their research) to full text of new sources of interest, they must first know how to READ a citation and understand what type of material they're looking at. A journal article? A book chapter? A book? A dissertation? Only when they know what type of source they're considering can they take the next steps to finding that material in full-text format.

Following are 1) a tutorial lesson, 2) a guide sheet to walk students through the process, and 3) a lesson plan where first-year students learned how to read citations and then access the material in full text.

Cover slide to a tutorial on understanding citations


Handout, does the library provide access to the material I need?

In this first-year writing library lesson (the first of 3, each focused on a specific anthropological controversy), the professor asked me to make sure each student walked away with one scholarly article on the Margaret Mead/Derek Freeman controversy. With too many relevant sources to choose from, I figured the lesson would be over in 10 minutes. Instead, I chose to use the 75 minutes with the students to introduce them to various ways in which they could access many sources, and then they would have the power to choose.

Putting Bibliographic Info in the Right Order

When students of an Anthropology class turned in preliminary bibliographies to me, prior to a library lesson, I was surprised to see the same course-required source written by 6 different students in 6 different ways. I asked the students what citation tool(s) they were using to generate the citation. This lead us to a close examination of the Purdue OWL site and practice writing out proper citations for the various sources in the preliminary bibliographies.

Screenshot of students' varying citations of the same source

Cutting Up Citations

A low-tech way to teach students about citations is to cut up a citation(s) into its components and then have students work together to assemble the citation. Students will consult a citation manual to reassemble the citation and glue it onto a piece of paper. Then, they need to label each component of the citation. This point of this exercise is to familiarize students with the citation manual and citation components. The exercise can done individually or as a group. 

The same exercise has been done through the use of Padlet, where the teacher adds in all of the necessary citation components (including punctuation) for a variety of material types and students move those pieces around to formulate an accurate citation. I have used this technique to show ANTH 100 students how to construct a citation in American Anthropologist style.

Identifying Parts of a Citation

It is common for college students to be unfamiliar with the parts of a citation. This means they often do not know where the information they need is located on the materials they examine. 

A simple and fast way to engage students in citations is to get them to label a physical item (using sticky notes). I give them a list of the items they need to identify and give them 5 minutes to do so.

Articles Books
Title of Article Author
Title of Journal Place of Publication
Author(s) Publisher Name
Volume Number Location
Issue Number  
Page Range  

After students have labeled their materials, I review what they should have labeled to make sure everyone is on the same page. Then, I provide the students with a citation guide and have them practice creating a citation in the style of their professor's preference.

This exercise can be used with any citation style and it can help emphasize that citations contain the same information, but they are formatted differently.

Find and Cite

Image of a magnifying lens

This is a simple exercise that requires students to find two sources I provide them, but they do not have the complete citation. This means they have to figure out how to find the item. Once they find the sources, they must cite each item in APA format (or any other style the professor requests). This exercise reinforces the importance of writing down detailed notes about sources when researching a topic and how to use a citation manual. 

Citation Relay!

picture of citation relay

I learned about the Citation Relay game from the LOEX 2014 conference. I have adapted the lesson to fit my teaching circumstance, but it is hands-down one of my students favorite citation activities!

Overview of the Citation Relay: 

  • Break the class into two large groups, then have each group broken down into smaller groups of 2-3 students. Each group will get a different item they need to cite.
  • When I say "go," each sub-group opens an envelop containing an item to cite. You can have them cite a book, article, and newspaper, or include things like Tweets or YouTube videos for an extra challenge.
  • Students work with their sub-groups to figure out what the item is and how to cite it. 
  • Once the students have created the citation, they run up to the white board and write down their citation. When they have it written down, they ring a bell.
  • I check the citation. If the citation contains any errors, I let the students know how many errors are present. At this point, they may consult with their entire team.
  • This process continues until each sub-group has completed their citation. The team who gets all of the citations correct wins!

A couple of notes

  • Make sure to review what citations are, formatting rules, and how to use a citation guide before the activity.
  • Review the students' sources afterwards; I have the students lead the discussion.

Evaluating Citation (Management) Tools

While students need to understand how to use citation manuals, it is beneficial to familiarize them with tools they can use to assist with the creation of their citations. Rather than deny the fact that students use citation generators, why not fold them into your instruction? 

For this exercise, I give students an article and I have them try using different citation generators. The purpose of this exercise is to help students understand that these tools exist and to reinforce that these tools are not always accurate.

Worksheet for Evaluating Citations

A similar pre-populated chart for tools used in higher education can look like this:

Comparison chart of citation management tools used in higher education


Author Information

This LIbGuide was created by

Kimberly D. Hoffman, Head of Outreach, Learning, and Research Services, University of Rochester

Brandon West, Head of Reference & Instructional Services, SUNY Geneseo

for the High School & College Librarians: Collaborating for Student Success Conference on May 24, 2017 at SUNY Brockport.