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Information Literacy Program: Poor use of sources in writing

What causes the problem?

  • Lack of knowledge of disciplinary conventions of evidence 
  • Misunderstanding of the assignment as an “all-about” paper 
  • Anxiety over submitting an original argument as a non-expert 
  • Lack of practice in making contrary arguments 
  • Difficulty reading and synthesizing scholarly sources 
  • Reading and using sources only at the sentence level
  • Lack of understanding of why to use sources in writing
  • Lack of understanding of scholarly discourse and knowledge creation as a conversation 


Low stakes learning activities 

  • Take a good example of research-based writing in the discipline, and have students discuss the types of sources that were used and why and how they were used.
  • Have a class discussion of what evidence and authority look like in the discipline.
  • Give students a controversial thesis and ask students in turn to supply arguments for and against it. 
  • Have students keep reading logs summarizing course readings or research project sources summarizing what the source means to them and how it affects their values or beliefs.
  • With an article or other research writing sample, for each section or paragraph have students write statements on what it says (summary) and what it does (provides evidence, presents an opposing view, etc.).
  • Have students draw a graphic organizer for difficult texts used as sources.
  • Provide a short list of sources that students must use in a short, source-based writing assignment. For each source, provide a reading guide with context about the reading, definitions, information about the genre, etc. 
  • Have students create an annotated bibliography for their assignment that includes a summary of each source and how it functions within the argument of their paper.
  • Have students compare two sources of information with differing perspectives, identifying the main points and discussing their relative authority. 
  • Have students present their topic and evidence to a partner in class. The partner states whether they are convinced by the evidence and suggests what evidence might be convincing. 

Assignment design tweaks 

  • Choose an alternative audience or genre for the students’ writing, like a literature review for a grant proposal or a professional report arguing for a new service.
  • Specify a role, audience, and genre for the writing task. Identify the conventions of the chosen genre for the students. 
  • Provide an argument and have students find evidence to support and/or refute it.
  • Require fewer sources but emphasize deep understanding and integration with the argument.
  • Include a line in your rubric on how sources should be used in the paper.
  • Set up the assignment as a problem-focused task rather than a topic-focused task. 
  • Have staged deliverables from students for the research assignment in order to deliver feedback. 

Librarian support services 

  • Librarian-led session on understanding scholarship as a conversation, using Web of Science, how to find and use different kinds of sources for research 
  • Help with facilitating the low stakes learning activities 
  • Custom course guide with source recommendations based on how sources are used