Teaching with Zotero: Citation Management for Feedback and Peer Review

Have you ever wished there were a way to see the sources that your students are finding and using in their term papers before they submit a completed draft? Have you ever wanted a less time-consuming way of collecting, assessing, and commenting on the source research your students compile in your course before 6-9 weeks into the term? Let me tell you, there is—and you may have already heard of it.

Zotero (Zotero.org) is a free and open-source software program that collects, stores, and organizes source information in easy-to-use, yet powerful ways. It lives in your internet browser and works alongside you as you research. With just a click of a button, Zotero will save bibliographic information for the citation into a library where you can retrieve it later when you need it. What’s more: since the library is stored online through Zotero, you can access it anywhere you have internet and an internet-enabled device. It is also praised for its ability to help compose complex, discipline-specific bibliographic pages for research papers in just a few mouse clicks. If you’d like to know more, Hannah Rempel of Oregon State University's Valley Library has a fantastic and comprehensive guide to getting started with Zotero (http://guides.library.oregonstate.edu/zotero) and your academic library very well may offer workshops that can teach you more.

But beyond the side of Zotero that can help you compile your own research is another size of Zotero, one that has powerful collaborative features that often go unnoticed or unused. Last year, I had the opportunity to incorporate Zotero into my freshman composition course. What I found was that students with the option to save research into Zotero and share that research with myself and other students throughout the writing process found more relevant, more recent, and better-informed sources. They also crafted more persuasive and more professional written products and arguments.

My first task was to introduce Zotero to freshmen who were unfamiliar with the software and—for the most part—unfamiliar with research in general. Because in ten weeks there isn’t much time to spend teaching user interface of a program, I assigned Rempel’s Zotero guide as course reading, the link to which is located above. Then, I devoted one part of one day showing Zotero in the classroom, how to download it, and some basic features that we would be using for class. Because there was not much time to spend on introducing or properly teaching Zotero to my students, using the software was optional; however, because I also offered extra credit points to those who participated, nearly the whole class opted-in to using the program throughout their writing process.

The next step was to get students sharing their research with me and with each other. Once we reached the point at which students were able to start collecting sourcework for their papers, they used Zotero to create a group folder (or library) to start documenting the sourcework they were hoping to use as they entered into drafting for their final papers. These folders were then shared with me. As I was able to see who was using Zotero for their research, I was able to then group students up and have each student share his or her group library with the rest of the group. (More information on creating and sharing a group library within Zotero is available on Rempel’s guide here:http://guides.library.oregonstate.edu/content.php?pid=442055&sid=3836347). 

The final step was to model the feedback process and get students evaluating each other’s sourcework. A big part of the research students do in freshman composition is getting them to understand and make decisions about what research is reliable and relevant to a topic and which research is not. Because research is something all students must do in their college writing, I’ve found that group work lends itself well to stimulating conversations about meaningful research. Following these steps, I was able to create space for such peer feedback on source work as well as provide some freedom for myself in reaching out to especially struggling students or identify especially well-prepared students who could assist others in their research processes.

Notes Tab

  • As students collect sources—and especially if they are not able to attach full-length copies of those sources—they create a “Note” for that source with a rhetorical précis, summarizing in four sentences the entire article, its methods, and its audience. Students also note the genre of that source (e.g. a peer-reviewed journal article, an article from a widely-circulated magazine, a blog post, a Wikipedia page). (More information on rhetorical précises here: http://oregonstate.edu/instruct/phl201/modules/rhetorical-precis/sample/peirce_sample_precis_click.html).

Note Tab Close Up

  • In groups, students then respond to group member sources. After reviewing a rhetoric précis, students create more “Notes” with feedback. I provide a fictionalized example to help guide students toward productive peer review, such as: “Hey Jo, I noticed you have noted that your Time article on locating emotion in the brain is your peer-reviewed journal source. I’m pretty sure Time is not the most academic place to find strong evidence for your topic. What do you think about this source I found and am using for my paper from American Psychologist?” Through creating and revising “Notes,” students have space to dialogue about the effectiveness of their sources and teach each other about the process of research—ultimately taking responsibility for their research and their written work.


  • Having oversight of the entire process, the instructor is able to watch the process unfold, guide discussion as needed, and respond to particular areas of opportunity or success. I have found that designating a due date for peer response about a week before first drafts of papers are due allows for all students to have some feedback in time to research alternatives, if needed.

Using Zotero has been a rewarding process for guiding students in their research. For one, the process encourages students to conduct meaningful research. Just as it is hard to binge-write a research paper that requires peer review of drafts, it is hard to binge-research for a paper when a group and the instructor review and provide feedback on those sources. Furthermore, students feel more vested in the research they do with Zotero because it is carried with them outside my 10-week course and into the courses they will write for in their discipline. And, as long as they register with Zotero an email they can access after graduation from OSU, this research is something they can have in their profession long after graduation from the university as well. If only Zotero had been around when I was in undergrad!


(Note: An earlier version of this post can be found in Oregon State's Writing Intensive Curriculum newsletter Teaching with Writing, available here: <wic.oregonstate.edu/news/f13>.)