Referencing in first year – what’s the point?

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Being able to reference correctly is often taken to be a fundamental academic competency and core to the values of academic scholarship. In assessments at tertiary level, credit is often given for correct use of a particular referencing style and, as a result, there are a number of guides, resources and tools available to assist students. However, as detailed in the University’s Educational Integrity Annual Report 2020, plagiarism is the most common form of academic integrity breach reported, with “a range of behaviours from unintentional poor referencing to deliberately attempting to gain an academic advantage”. So, should we rethink how we teach referencing and more importantly, how we assess it?

Key insights from the Educational Integrity Annual Report include:

  • Integrity education is effective in reducing breaches
  • Early intervention is key to supporting student learning​
  • First-year students need more support​
  • Assessment design is important​


The value of an educational approach to integrity is shown in the report by the reduced incidents of integrity breaches for those who have recently completed the University’s compulsory Academic Honesty Education Module (AHEM) module. It is also noteworthy that integrity breaches are highest amongst students who are least familiar with our academic practices and expectations. First year students, and particularly commencing international students, are reported at a much higher rate than others. The report highlights the need for staff to “promote an open dialogue on integrity within individual units of study to support the mandatory education module”. Studies such as that by Bretag et al (2013) on the student perspective also suggest that better educational approaches are needed and that these need to move beyond delivering information to an active engagement with students.

As part of the piloting of transition activities in designated units of study, a number of colleagues have run a ‘talking about integrity’ activity before an early assessment. In this activity, students discuss various scenarios where the integrity issue may not be clear cut or handled well by broad policies. Alongside highlighting the nature and value of academic integrity, this activity forces students and their tutors to engage with misunderstandings, uncertainties and skill gaps.

Why do we reference?

Depending on the disciplinary context and the nature of the assignment, the need to reference may be more than just acknowledgement of sources:

  • To discuss others’ ideas
  • To show the development of theories
  • To quote results from previous experiments
  • Simply to save time and space by avoiding the need to repeat work that is already available to the reader

Not acknowledging the source of an idea may be a serious ethical or legal breach in many professions. Engaging students in a discussion on these topics may be effective as an educational approach. Moreover, in the age of social media and the use of multimodal forms of communication, the need to acknowledge the intellectual property of others’ work is arguably just as important as academic referencing and perhaps more relevant to our students.

First year students coming straight from school will have experienced different attitudes to referencing depending on their teachers, school and background. Students returning to study from the workplace will also have seen very different approaches to referencing from very formal regulations to simple hyperlinking.

Given the range of skills and backgrounds of our students and that the reasons to reference depend on the disciplinary and professional context, a simple discussion activity in a tutorial on the question ‘why do we reference?’ may be a valuable educational tool in combating unintentional plagiarism. Making the values that underpin referencing explicit is a powerful way to level the playing field for students who have no previous experience of academic culture.

How should we reference in first year?

Given the need to discuss and educate commencing students on the reasons for referencing and for them to find and use the best sources for their assessment, concentrating on the precise details of how to reference in a marking scheme may be counterproductive:

  • As many disciplines and journals have their own preferred referencing style, is it good for students to learn several systems?
  • Marks send a message about what’s important: what message do students really need to receive about referencing?
  • Should marks be allocated to the precision with which a referencing style is used at all?
  • Should the use of referencing management software be encouraged? And if so, which?

Ideas from colleagues

The following quotes are from colleagues around the University when asked to consider these questions:

  • “Encouraging contextualisation rather than blind acceptance – you could ask a student why they chose a particular reference and what they thought of it.”
  • “Looking at a range of resources and working out why and how to integrate them into an argument is more important than referencing styles”
  • “Style is less important than the practice, and consistency”
  • “No mark penalty for incorrect style”
  • “Attribution, rather than style is important”
  • “Students need to understand the values of the scholarly community (like attribution) before they learn about conventions (like formatting references).”
  • “Discussing referencing as an element of good writing, rather than as a separate task, could support students to see a clearer connection between the two and why referencing styles are often part of writing style manuals”
  • “Identifying what our graduates will need to achieve in the real world / post study can help us focus the emphasis on what we teach and how.”
  • “Piloting pre-emptive early intervention support to students in areas of highest demand (for example first year units of study with high numbers of international students) to provide “point-of-need” support to students who unintentionally reference poorly. A pilot could use the successful peer-to-peer development Educational Integrity model which is already in place for post-assessment support, but delivered proactively, before assessments are due.”

Tell me more

Complete the anonymous survey below to share your thoughts on the purpose of referencing and the style that should be used in first year units. The results of the survey will be posted here towards the end of 2021.