Communicating citation format expectations

Students working at a desk with open books, laptops, and a tablet

Importance of citation guidelines

Providing students with clear guidelines for appropriately citing sources is important in any course. In the same way you would not expect students to solve complex math problems, follow lab protocol, or analyze dense texts without some prior training, knowing when and how to cite sources is a skill you should not blindly assume students already possess. 

This is especially true given that citations styles and expectations can vary substantially among academic and professional disciplines. Navigating citation norms can be part of what Rachel Gable calls the “hidden curriculum” of higher education: “the set of tacit rules in a formal educational context that insiders consider to be natural and universal” (Jaschik, 2021). 

Being up-front about the citation expectations in your course can not only help minimize student confusion but also contribute to a more inclusive learning experience.

Beyond addressing hidden curriculum concerns, the Higher Learning Commission’s 21st Century Distance Education Guidelines require that students be provided with “information regarding what students need to be successful in the program” (item 8e) as well as “expectations for students’ engagement as active learners with learning resources, faculty, other students, and assignments as appropriate” (item 8f). Providing students with guidelines for citation – whether the citation standards of your academic discipline or just your own expectations for a particular course – is part of satisfying these items.

Missouri Online Recommends

Missouri Online recommends that online instructors and course developers provide students with course-level and/or assignment-specific citation expectations and preferences (see item #13 in the Quality Course Review 5 Pillars Rubric).

Communicating citation guidelines

To begin, communicate to students how (or if) you expect students to cite sources in your course. Typically this information is provided in your syllabus, somewhere within an introductory or “getting started” module, or within the instructions for relevant assignments or activities.

When you provide this information, consider the following two questions:

  • What citation style should students use? APA, MLA, and Chicago are common styles, but your discipline may use an alternative style or even a mix of styles. Specify what style(s) you want students to use for your course. If citing sources is not relevant or required in your course, be sure to make this clear to students. Additionally, if you allow students to pick from a variety of citation styles so long as they are consistent, state that. In short, whatever your preferences are, communicate them explicitly to students.
  • When should students cite? Depending on the needs of your course, you may want to require students to cite sources in some circumstances but not in others. For example, you might require students to cite their sources when writing a draft of a research paper but not when posting to a class discussion. You can provide this explanation in either a general course citation policy (placed in the syllabus or introductory module), or you can place specific citations expectation within the instructions of particular assignments (but be sure to direct students to look at those assignment instructions for citation information).
Be specific and direct about what sources your students need to cite and when they need to cite them.

Finally, whatever your citation preferences are, it’s always a good idea to provide additional, supporting resources. Students at any level can struggle to understand and implement specific citation rules and formatting. Fortunately, each UM System campus provides an array of resources on citations styles and tools. Consider directing students to these.

Campus Resources

Citing generative artificial intelligence (AI)

Whether you have a zero-tolerance policy towards the use of generative AI tools (e.g., Bard, ChatGPT, Claude, DALL-E, Stable Diffusion, etc.) or actively encourage students to incorporate AI tools into their work, be sure to communicate your AI-use policies to students, including your citation preferences. Brown University’s style guide information on citing AI-generated content using common citation formats (APA, Chicago/Turabian, and MLA).

Consider also reviewing the UM System’s policy on unauthorized use of artificially generated content and Missouri Online’s information on incorporating the AI policy into your course and syllabus when determining your course’s AI-use and citation policies. For more resources on generative AI, explore Missouri Online’s Generative AI Toolkit.

Feel free to check out the following sprints that also help you learn more about communicating with your students and promoting academic integrity online.


Created on: January 23, 2024