Helping students with citations and references

Darby McGrath, Kwansei Gakuin University

Quick guide

  • Key words: academic writing, citations,references
  • Learner English level: Intermediate and above
  • Learner maturity: University
  • Preparation time: About three hours
  • Activity time: About 60 minutes


As anyone who teaches academic writing in a Japanese university context will testify, the formal conventions of citing and referencing sources present a real challenge. Superficially,this appears counterintuitive. What could be easier than presenting students with examples of the types of references they will be required to write, and having them follow those models? The reality is much less straightforward. It can be difficult to persuade students to attend to those models, and even when they do the results are often patchy. This approach aims to present students with the requisite information incrementally, so that they are not overwhelmed.


Step 1: Prepare a set of reference materials (see Appendix) which guides students through the process of constructing references and citations through a series of questions. The questions ask students to reflect on the nature of the sources they are using.

Step 2: Find a set of sources which your students can use to practice constructing citations and references and for which you can provide adequate feedback. Make sure that the sources reflect the variety of sources your students will be expected to use in their own writing (e.g.,journal articles, web pages, book chapters).


Step 1:Lead in to the topic by having the class discuss the following questions in pairs:

  • How are citations and references different?
  • Where do we use citations?
  • Where do we use references?
  • Why do we use citations?
  • Why do we use references?

For students who have some familiarity with referencing,this will be a useful revision. For students who are not familiar with referencing,this will be your opportunity to give them an introduction,ideally with the use of a model essay.

Step 2:Familiarise students with the reference materialsbyleading themthrough the process of constructing citations and references;each step consists of a simple yes-nochoice (Appendix).

Step 3: Give students the sources you have prepared beforehand. Then,askstudentsto apply the process laid out in the reference materials and to write both a citation and a reference for each source. Rotate them so that while one pair of students is working on a journal article, another pair is working on, for example, a newspaper article. Set a time limit of around seven minutes, and then have each pair pass their source on to the next.

Step 4: Have each pair write a different citation and reference on the board and conduct plenary feedback, using the reference materials.


Thisapproach focuses purely on helping students to write formally accurate references and citations, and to this extent it has proved fairly successful. It avoids overwhelming students with information, as often happens when they are simply confronted with a list of models to choose from. This said,it deals with perhaps the simplest aspect of source integration in academic writing. Beyond this you will need to attend to the far more challenging areas of source appropriacy, attribution,and paraphrasing.


The appendices for this article are available from the link below.