Three Reasons to Teach and Use Zotero in the Classroom

Published on September 9, 2019

Congratulations!  You survived the first week back to class.  The barrage of social media posts reminding you, some reassuring, some with funny memes and others that may have sent you into a world of doubt about your ability to get back in front of the class.  It was reassuring to know that after years of teaching many folks still have pre-teaching dreams/nightmares.

Sometimes after you have met your students and learned more about their interests and skills, new ideas and resources can be useful to support the assignments, workshops and learning objectives that you have set out for your class. An important focus in my classes is teaching students to identify, read, contextualize and cite sources that are related to a diversity of topics and course offerings. 

In classes, I work to adapt and work with student interests and passions.  It means that I have to accept that I will not be an expert in all topics but that I am working to provide students with a strong foundation in their methodology and systematization of their research.  As early as possible, I introduce students to Zotero.  I have loved the work that Andrea Eidinger and Krista McCracken started in January 2018, “Beyond the Lecture Series.”  They have shared the more pedagogically focused work of Andrea Davis from Arkansas State University on using this tool in the classroom. 

If you are not sure about Zotero – I am happy to send my notes and slides on using this program and I am happy to share assignments I have created for students to develop good habits using Zotero. From my experience and perspective, Zotero has three strengths.  The first is that it helps students to organize their research so they can keep track of websites, news sites and journal articles they download and read.  Second, it can be adapted to store and manage primary sources that are digitally born.  Third, it models collaboration to students and encourages them to consider their own work and the work of their peers. 

Most students have laptops and sometimes desktops they use to undertake research.  Zotero lets students access their readings, YouTube videos, NFB videos, favourite podcasts and many other assigned course materials from all of their classes.  As a professor, what I like, in particular, is that you have the ability to cumulatively store your course material, personal research projects and favourite monographs and journal articles and you can reorganize and manage content to use and share each term.  Sharing my collections with students shows them how they can keep their readings and work organized over time and it is portable regardless of the university and program you move to over time. The GLAM (galleries, libraries, archives and museums) sector, universities and research projects continue to prioritize digitization.  Zotero helps students, researchers and teachers leverage these sources to manage and systematize research.

Image 1: Image from my Zotero library highlighting the integration of .pdf, the different items types and with a circle around the ‘magic wand’.

Adding and editing information in Zotero is quite easy and I wish that I had this tool when I was doing graduate work.  There is a tool I like to call the magic wand.  You can enter the unique ISBN, DOI, etc for your source and it will automatically populate a number of fields.  Students have more work ahead when entering information for artwork, documents, letters or reports as an example. Learning to edit and ensure entries are consistent with pre-determined tags can help students with term assignments.  Depending on the course, a few of my favourite resources for primary sources are:

Digital Public Library of America

The Proceedings of Old Bailey

Artefacts Canada Database

Canadian Mail Order Catalogues

Canadian Directories Collection

Early Canadiana Online

For a listing of Canadian archives, the Canadian Council of Archives manages a database with links to 780 institutions throughout Canada.

Modeling and teaching students to collaborate and share research is another important skill that will help them to get to know each other, encourage them to consider the work of their peers and provide them with tools and research for other classes.  Over time, I have modified the Zotero assignment from an individual assignment where students share their libraries with me to a class collection that I add to throughout the term based on their interests and projects and that they add to as they undertake research.  For third and fourth-year classes that are smaller, this approach again helps students to get to know each other and get more comfortable for the presentation of their final projects and it also provides a digital solution to sharing reading material for presentations.

I also love that so many colleagues have curated and continue to maintain group libraries.  A few examples – one shared by Andrea Bertino @androsDoxai before term for Digital Humanities. During this past term, my class used a group to share project sources throughout the term.  I have also used a group to share books that students can read for a Canadian History – Canadian Fiction assignment.

I have been using Zotero for academic and contract research, committee projects and teaching since 2014.  I have transferred my database between laptops, work computers and I use it extensively in class when teaching students research methods and analysis of primary sources.  I love that I can easily access .pdf journal articles and create bibliographies for colleagues and students on their research topics quite easily.  Consistently, new students and returning students have appreciated the possibilities it has at the beginning of term to help keep one organized and what feels like a good path for a good term.

Jo McCutcheon, University of Ottawa | Executive Director, Association of Canadian Archivists

[1] For more information – check out the Zotero website: https://www.zotero.org. You only need an account to get started and I have found that documentation is excellent.


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