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3 Reasons Students May Struggle With Citation

Understanding Possible Root Causes for Plagiarism

Jonathan Bailey
Jonathan Bailey
Plagiarism Consultant -- Plagiarism Today






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For teachers, it can be confounding to get a new student who, despite being relatively advanced in their academic career, seems to struggle with citation.

It’s easy for us to think that MLA/APA/Chicago styles are cornerstones of any successful academic career but, for many students, that simply is not true. Whether the issue is with just citation itself or citation is a bigger part of the broader issue with writing, many students never truly grasp when, why, and how they should cite the sources they use.

However, there are many potential reasons for this particular problem and, ultimately, it may not be a failing on the student’s part. Simply put, the way many schools and student lives are structured can make the academic approach to citation seem alien.

Fortunately, there are ways to counter that problem, but only if teachers are prepared for them and understand the types of issues their students may be coming to them with.

Reason 1: Students Do Not Have Prior Knowledge of Citation

Though it’s easy to assume that students have likely written a large number of essays before they reach the latter years of high school or the first years of college, that’s often not the case. In many cases, the number of essays students are being asked to write is dropping.

According to one 2012 survey, students at elite public high schools were writing fewer than five research essays per year. According to a 2016 survey of educators, they often struggle in teaching writing because fewer than half had taken a college class that devoted significant time to writing and fewer than a third took a class dedicated to how children learn to write.

The reasons for this shift are many. Increasing class sizes means that teachers are reluctant to give out time-intensive assignments like essays. Couple that with the fact that No Child Left Behind, the law that was in effect until 2017, put heavy emphasis on multiple-choice reading comprehension tests and largely overlooked writing.

Regardless of the reason, according to a 2016 study, ¾ of both 8th and 12th grade students lack proficiency in writing and 40 percent of those that took the ACT writing exam lacked the skills needed to complete a college-level English composition class.

Simply put, students are not writing as much as many educators think they should and they are routinely arriving at the latter parts of their educational career without the skills that would seem to be mandatory.

Reason 2: Competing Citation Standards

Students may not be writing as much in the classroom as they once were, but they are still very actively engaged in writing. Whether posting on social media, texting with friends or otherwise interacting online, students are indeed writing.

The problem is that all of these different platforms and communities have different citation standards. For example, a student can go from sharing a meme on Instagram with zero citation to sharing a Facebook post that carries an automatic citation and then sharing a quote on Twitter that’s cited with just a link or a "h/t."

Different platforms students engage with all have different citation standards and none of them look like MLA/APA/Chicago. Students already navigate a myriad of citation standards and rules in their daily lives and that makes it all the more difficult to teach another citation standard that is extremely different.

While teaching citation code-switching to help students translate what they do naturally into an academic environment can help, the challenge is going to grow as students do more and more of their writing (and citation) outside of the classroom.

Reason 3: Poor Research Habits

Finally, many issues with citation aren’t related to writing, but to research.

Though the internet makes it easier than ever to find information, learning how to record what you’ve learned and weave it into your writing is a skillset that many do not fully grasp. Even students who do write a large number of essays may not do a large number of research papers.

Skills such as organizing research notes and learning to add citations as you write, rather than as part of the editing process, can get lost. This can cause students to struggle with remembering what information came from where and leaving off important citations.

It’s important to remember that, while we think of citation as being part of the writing process, it (ideally) begins before words are put to paper during the research process. When students are gathering information, they should already be thinking about what sources are the best to use, when they’re going to use them and how they will cite them.

Then, as they start to write, they should implement that plan and include the citations as they write, rather than waiting until the editing process. This way, good research practices flow naturally into good writing/citation practices and serve to make the editing process much easier and more focused.

Still, if a student seems to be struggling with citation, it may be an issue with their research skills, not their writing skills.


Citation, to most educators, is a fairly fundamental skill for any student to have. When a student lacks the skill, especially at a later point in their academic career, it’s tempting to blame the student.

We ask, “How could anyone go through X years of school and not learn the basics of citation?” The answer is that there are a lot of ways.

Students aren’t on a linear path when it comes to their education. Even the brightest students often need extra help filling in gaps in their prior education, and citation is no different. This is a major part of why it’s important to have basic skills research and writing programs to help the students who need it.

If essays are to be a big part of a student’s academic future, it’s important that they learn how to do them properly, even if that means starting from scratch.

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