Exam Essays that Develop Research Skills: A Second Look at Zotero

Today we have a guest post from Adam Irish, an assistant professor of political science at California State University, Chico.

Like many professors, I change my teaching to fit the class or, in the past year, the Zoom discussion I am leading. My lower division, survey courses focus on building a scholarly vocabulary and an understanding of concepts; upper division courses dive deeper into issues so that students can wade into the intellectual fray. However, this past year of online teaching revealed a potential for overlap for this dichotomy: the development of research citation skills through the incorporation of Zotero.

              For years, I have used Zotero — free, bibliographic management software — in both my advanced classes and in my own research. Zotero retrieves citation information from the web, stores those citations, syncs databases of citations across devices, and allows writers to insert citations and bibliographies with the click of a button.

In upper division courses, I devote an entire class to “Zotero training,” introducing the software, demonstrating searches of journal databases (e.g., JSTOR), and using Google Scholar’s cited by link to search forward in time from found articles. Every semester, students are amazed that they can gather dozens of promising sources, quickly save all websites relevant to their topic, and pile up citations for less scholarly documents (e.g., news articles, government reports, treaties), all in the space of a single class hour. Juniors and seniors regularly lament that they are just now learning about Zotero, having spent previous semesters manually tracking citations and typing bibliographies.

Until the pandemic, I had not thought to incorporate Zotero into my introductory classes where writing is generally reserved for responses, discussion posts, partnered activities, or exam essays. Yet, with most students now learning online, an opportunity presented itself to use Zotero, especially on exam essays. Rather than require a hand cramping, scrawled blue book response or a timed, eerily monitored online submission, I required an open book exam essay submitted over the course of two days with student using Zotero to cite sources. This approach provided 1) a novel way to check student work and 2) for the development of student research skills.

After comparing essay responses from this semester to previous semesters, it is clear that training students to use Zotero on their exams encourages closer reading of the class texts. Student essays regularly get into the weeds with arguments on specific pages. Incorporating Zotero’s in text citations also provides a less-invasive way check for potential plagiarism. Zotero citations highlight potentially similar sentence-citation combinations.

More importantly, by requiring in text citations as well as a bibliography, exam essays using Zotero encourage students to treat their exam essays as substantive arguments, building on class readings rather than providing summaries. Training first and second-year students to use Zotero establishes social science writing as a genre distinct from persuasive writing, literary analysis, or autobiographical texts that these students often encounter in English composition courses. Even if restricted to course texts, as in my Intro to IR class this semester, the use of additional software alongside word processors conveys that social science writing is more than just argumentation. It involves reference to other texts, statistics, and graphics. Much like showing work in a math class, Zotero allows students to cite while they write, highlighting claims and evidence relevant to their essay response.

A final suggestion for anyone interested in adding Zotero to exam essays: consider exam essay questions that require students to take a position on course texts. For example, does Nye’s or Hurd’s writings — legitimacy vs. smart power — fit better with Immerwahr’s views of America as a hidden empire? Why? With this sort of question, we open up a debate with no clear “right answer.” Thus, student essays should demonstrate, in both their writing and citation of specific pages, an understanding of the readings as well as a critical analysis of the arguments for and against each potential response. Any debriefing of essay responses can highlight the arguments and citations that could have been made, further cementing the importance of previously-published scholarship to good social science analysis.

3 Replies to “Exam Essays that Develop Research Skills: A Second Look at Zotero”

  1. This is a great suggestion. I’ve tried to incorporate Zotero into my teaching, but with limited success. I like the idea of linking it to exams. Not only is Zotero a good tool, but this approach show students that references shouldn’t be an afterthought – they are an important part of the writing process.

    1. Thank you Matthew and yes Zotero can be a bit tricky to get to work across the variety of word processing platforms students use. I’m hoping to provide a follow up post on this exact issue by pointing to the resources I’ve assembled for students to mitigate the issue. For example, Zotero now works with Google Doc’s – which my students told me about this past semester! Finally, if your institution provides access to Office for students (as mine and other do) using Zotero is a great opportunity to introduce students to these commonly used programs.

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