Why you need to use references and citations

You’re told to give references in coursework, but do you know why they are so important?

A friend asked me if references were mainly for respect and ego purposes. They wondered if the point of citing the work of others was a bit like tipping your hat to them, or saying “Well done, kudos for the great academic work you published”.

Academic work has references for very different reasons, even though I’m sure many people would love to see their work being used elsewhere.

photo by Nick Sherman

photo by Nick Sherman

The real reasons for referencing/citation include:

  • Showing how widely you’ve read around the subject;
  • Demonstrating your understanding of the context and research up to this point;
  • Highlighting points of view that differ to yours;
  • Backing up your own points of view.

Another great explanation of why we reference is offered by Monash University:

“Referencing helps create a map of knowledge, a web of pathways in knowledge; and each researcher helps extend that knowledge. It means that we don’t have to find out everything for ourselves all over again; we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. In effect, referencing multiplies knowledge exponentially.
“But scholarship depends not only on the sharing of knowledge but also on the questioning of knowledge. It relies on both the acknowledgement and critique of the work of other scholars.”

My friend was concerned that all these references felt like collusion. They asked, “If you reference too much, where is your own work?”

Using the work of others in coursework is not collusion. Think of it more as collaboration. You recognise what has gone before and give that work credit as you extend upon it or put it in a different context.

photo by Horia Varlan

photo by Horia Varlan

None of this has anything to do with plagiarism. Plagiarism is completely different. You plagiarise when you copy something word for word. You plagiarise when you take other people’s work and reword it as your own. You plagiarise when you don’t give the credit for an idea that doesn’t originate from you.

If I’d reworded the Monash explanation as my own in an academic essay, that would be plagiarism. If, instead, I talked about referencing creating a map of knowledge and gave a footnote to the Monash piece, that would be fine.

There’s no need to reference when the facts or theories are fairly common knowledge. The dates of major historical events, for instance, can be used as a given…Unless they are widely disputed or you are trying to dispute the dates yourself!

Instead of worrying that too many citations make it look as if you’ve done nothing yourself, be confident that a number of well-placed references will give more relevance to your work.

References are your friend. I didn’t realise this enough myself when it mattered and it sounds like there are other students out there in a similar position.

Remember the need to cite this way: You’re adding sources to support your own content, not someone else’s ego.

15 Ways to Get a Fresh Perspective On an Old Topic

How do you give yourself a fresh pair of eyes when you’ve seen it all before?

I pondered this after the announcement that David Eastwood–someone deeply involved in HE–had been made Chair of Russell Group.

In a time of difficulty for the sector, it is obvious that a top role needs someone with a lot of experience and influence in order to be heard and to make a further mark.

To show the extent to which Eastwood knows the sector, here are just some of his current roles:

  • Vice Chancellor of the University of Birmingham;
  • on the advisory board of the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI);
  • a member of the QAA board;
  • Chair of the UCAS Board.

What, you want more? Fine. Eastwood’s past experience includes having been head of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), chief executive of the Arts & Humanities Research Board, and he was on the panel of the Browne review of HE.

Let’s just say he knows a bit about HE…

Having loads of experience sounds great, but it’s just as important to look at each situation from a fresh perspective. Without new ideas, you face getting set in your ways.

You can’t forget what you know and become a novice again, so you need another way to look at things differently.

"I've Seen It All Before..." (photo by ZeroOne)

“I’ve Seen It All Before…” (photo by ZeroOne)

Below, I’ve got fifteen tips for getting new views. They aren’t designed to change your opinion (although they might!). These tips will help you to see further, to understand why not everyone sees things from your point of view, and to give you greater strength in your own views.

  1. Read stuff that you don’t agree with – It may not change your own opinion, but it will help you see how other people view the situation.
  2. Think about the issues you don’t know so well – Learning never ends; it just gets more specific. Look beyond what you already know and keep discovering even more.
  3. Ask for other opinions/options/ideas and work with those you hadn’t considered or acted upon before – I often say that you should listen to advice, and then choose whether or not to make use of it.  Over on Twitter, @Mandlovesgeeks recognises how tough this can be. Mand suggests that you should “ask for feedback from someone else – & try to listen to it, even when it’s painful”.
  4. Play ‘what if…?’ and see how your view changes – When faced with alternatives, it’s easy to dismiss them out of hand without considering them. They sound wrong and that’s the end of that.
    Instead, think ‘what if…?’ and work out some pros and cons to different ideas. You may find something positive after all, or you may have a useful list of cons to use in future discussions.
  5. Imagine what it’s like to be an outsider looking in for the first time – When you don’t have all that experience, what does the start look like? If you had to explain things to a child, how easy would it be?
  6. Imagine what it’s like for an insider in a very different position to your own – People are great at working together, but they regularly take on very different roles. You may be working toward the same goal, but is everybody travelling toward the goal in the same way?
  7. Play devil’s advocate on your own long-term opinions – After years of sticking to your guns, it’s worth nudging yourself once in a while and arguing with your own opinion. Pick great holes in your well-worn perspective and argue back with just as much conviction.
  8. Don’t take anything for granted. ANYTHING. – It’s easy to forget that you know so much about the topic and that you have no doubt developed lots of short cuts and assumptions. Scrap them. Start afresh. If you haven’t done something the long way round for a while, it’s worth reminding yourself.
  9. Go somewhere else. Do something new – A new perspective on other things around you will get you thinking in new ways. Use this to your advantage. If you can’t get away from your physical surroundings, listen to some music you wouldn’t usually choose.
  10. View from a different medium – Used to doing everything on a screen? Print it out. Tired of text? Try an infographic. Bored of the same textbook? Find a new book on the same subject.
  11. Sit on it – When you’ve been over-thinking, fresh thoughts are hard to come by. Put it down for an hour, a day, a week, a month…whatever. Come back to it when you’re no longer obsessing over things.
  12. Stay curious – Auto-pilot is dangerous. Curiosity may have killed the cat, but can boost your career
  13. Write about it (mega credit to @emmielouli) – Get words out on the page and your view may look different to the shorthand version in your head. If your view stays the same, you may notice gaps in your knowledge and questions you can’t quite answer. These aren’t reasons to be ashamed. These are areas to explore!
  14. Look across different sectors/subjects (mega credit to @helencurtis) – You don’t have to stay on your own turf. Find out what happens elsewhere. See what’s different. How could it work in your context?
  15. You tell me… – I need a fresh perspective. What do you do to get a fresh view of something? Let me know in the comments!

Why proving what you can do is better than improving your qualifications

Scott Young is taking a 4-year MIT course in Computer Science. But he’s taking it in just one year. And for less than $2000.

Scott says the future of learning will be personal, rather than steeped in official qualifications. The Internet already provides learning for everyone, which is exactly how Scott is taking the MIT course himself, at his own (faster) pace.

Many top universities provide lectures and course content free online. And now startups like Udacity, Coursera, and Khan Academy have come along to provide even more academic classes for free. You can learn at no cost in the comfort of your own home, room, library, garden…whatever!

Scott won’t receive a formal degree award from MIT when he completes his class, but he doesn’t mind:

“Our society incorrectly equates knowledge with accreditation. Getting a piece of paper is great, and for many lines of work, it’s completely necessary. But the equation is made so strongly that people forget the two things are different.
“I have nothing against college. University was an amazing and worthwhile experience for me, and it could be for you as well. All I hope is that by showing an alternative, people who feel the current system doesn’t work for them can find another path.”

You have a chance to find your own route, whatever your current situation is.

Once you take this route, the key is to prove your worth in ways that don’t rely solely on the degree you’ve been awarded. Traditional methods of bettering yourself for career and job purposes rely heavily on improving your qualifications.

But that’s because many people are used to those methods. It’s ‘normal’. It’s ‘what everyone does’.

And, of course, it doesn’t have to be that way. Taking your own route can be so valuable. For a start, you automatically stand out. Hopefully for all the right reasons!

Formal routes are sometimes necessary for legal purposes or compliance reasons. Not everything can be bypassed without another thought. And that’s fine. Make it part of your route and do your own thing where you can.

Like Scott, I also have a lot of time for university. I’m sure you guessed that. The name of this blog is a clue… And if you need further proof, I’m called @universityboy on Twitter. I’m not about to give up on the wonders of university.

With all this in mind, what is more valuable: experience or a degree?

This question was asked over at The Student Room. My take is that both experience and degree are useful for different reasons and in different circumstances. A direct comparison is unhelpful.

One person gave a good explanation to the comparison problem:

“…it’s like saying which is more valuable, lungs or a stomach.”

Think of your experience and your degree as a set of situations about YOU. Translate these situations into what you’ve managed to get out of them. Sell yourself, not your grades. Talk about a range of experiences with purpose, so you can include what happened at university alongside everything else.

When you take this view, remember these two things:

  1. Tailor your approach each time you reach out to others – Why? Because perspective changes. Both yours and theirs. Consider things like this: Why are you reaching out to them? What are they looking for? How can you help them? What are the variables in this situation?
  2. Embrace failure – Why? Because no matter how much you prove what you can do, the context is taken out of your hands every time you interact with someone else. There are numerous stories of now famous authors who struggled to find a publisher. They had to submit their first book to many different publishers before one of them said ‘yes’. Imagine if all those authors had given up after the first try.

Jane Artess is director of research for the Higher Education Careers Services Unit. Speaking in the Guardian, she said:

“…one student’s stretch is another student’s yawn; one employer’s view of what constitutes talent may be written off as simply average by another.”

Put simply, no specific route is guaranteed. That’s why your own route is valid and why you must be careful before comparing things that don’t need a comparison.

Your route should include a mixture of traditional methods and unique ones. Find what works for you and not what seemed to work for someone else. Do take their advice and find clues, but don’t bother emulating the same successes, because it’s already been done.

You may or may not have aced a whole bunch of exams and studied to within an inch of your life. What does it truly make you? Shape your qualifications around your own narrative and unlock the story of you.

It’s not the grades that stand out, it’s the individual.

photo by

photo by

How You Can Do What You Keep Putting Off

Ah, distractions!

Distractions are a lovely way to do anything other than what you should be doing.

Distractions are plentiful and a recipe for forgetting. You have an ever-expanding list of things that are hard to resist. Then you have Facebook and Twitter (and the rest!) all bringing a steady stream (or a heavy flow, perhaps even a tsunami) of tidbits that can take you to every destination imaginable, and from every direction you care to come from.

Why is it so difficult to get rid of distraction and stop procrastinating?

  • Fear of missing out;
  • Everyone else doing it;
  • No natural end;
  • It feeds your pleasure centres in the brain;
  • It can *feel* useful, even when that’s an excuse.

Sid Savara’s procrastination survey shows that, overwhelmingly, people just don’t feel like doing the things they’re meant to be doing. They put it off because they *want* to put it off.

What can you do to stop this spiral from going further and further out of control?

photo by Bernat Casero

Tick, tock, putting it off… (photo by Bernat Casero)

Set an incredibly short amount of time

Ten or fifteen minutes should do it. Push yourself for just that amount of time and see how you feel. You may be happy to continue after that set time.

Switch off notifications

A beep or a screen notification will stop you from what you’re doing, whether you like it or not. No matter how much you tell yourself to ignore it, you’ve already been alerted to it. The temptation is there, itching away at you at exactly the wrong time. Switch those messages off!


Starting is easier when you have a better overview of what you want to achieve. A mindmap will let you consider ideas and links with ease. It may be what you need to conquer your procrastination. I recently gave mindmapping software, Mindmaple Lite a whirl. It’s free and it’s easy to use, so you can concentrate more on the mindmap than the software.


If mindmapping isn’t your thing, how about a brief outline of what you want to achieve? Build up your sections and sub-sections to break down your research and writing into smaller tasks. I recently discovered Quicklyst as an online way to create outlines.

Act like it’s a blog post

The pressure of writing an academic essay can lead to procrastination. So treat the writing more casually. A recent post on Lifehack explained that 1,000 words doesn’t have to take a lot of time when you work in the right order.

Try writing a snappy title or headline if the essay question is getting in the way (making sure that you’re still trying to answer the same question!). Then, see if you can rattle off a quick introduction and conclusion to help your own mindset (you may wish to rewrite later, so this is just for you right now). Then make a quick outline of the major points you want to cover throughout the essay. After this, fill in the gaps. Do this with a timer if you prefer, so you challenge yourself to get the bulk written quickly, rather than worrying over every last word and detail. Edit and re-draft later.

Go somewhere different

Location makes a huge difference to your productivity, your attitude, and your outlook. Find places you’ve not been to before and explore where it takes your mind, not just your body.

Watch an inspiring talk or presentation

Find a TED talk and watch it. You’ll be procrastinating (win), and you’ll feed yourself some brain-food that’ll get you more psyched up for work (win).

Well, so long as you don’t just keep watching more TED talks…

Understand what’s stopping you

Okay, so you want to put this off. But why? What is the real reason for your procrastination? Be honest. Are you not interested in the topic itself? Do you have difficulty understanding the subject (time to fire up Wikipedia for the basics)? Have you got loads of friends tempting you away for fun?

If you don’t work out why you’re putting the work off, you’ll keep on putting it off!

Stop expecting perfect

Perfectionism is a recipe for procrastination. When you picture the most amazing coursework to have ever graced this earth, everything you do will be a disappointment. After a while, you’ll feel inadequate and start putting off the work instead of cracking on.

Nothing is perfect. And your first drafts are certainly not meant to be anything other than, well, first drafts. Successful writers almost never finish on their first attempt. They redraft, they edit, they get opinions from others. If established writers need to do this, you can stop beating yourself up over flaws. Even a First Class essay has flaws!

 Believe that you can keep learning

As a child, I was told that I was ‘good at maths’. Children tend to believe what they are told. So I went through school believing I had a good grasp of maths. That was fine for a while, but when new concepts arrived that I didn’t understand, I started to think I wasn’t good at maths any more. I guessed I wasn’t as smart as some people had made out.

The concept of ‘smart’ and ‘clever’ is flawed. Turn the perspective around. We all have to learn. Nobody is born with great wisdom and knowledge. What matters is a willingness to keep learning new things and stop worrying that you’re not ‘smart’ enough.

Don’t discount the future

According to one paper about procrastination:

“…the value of socializing in the present is weighed heavily while the value of getting good grades in the future is discounted. This quirk leads to delays in studying for tests, writing term papers and getting prepared for weekly assignments. As can be expected, students who procrastinate generally discounted future values greater than students who don’t procrastinate.”

The future seems a long way away. No wonder it feels easy to put tomorrow to one side. But the future soon becomes the present and it’ll bite you on the bum if you don’t deal with it in good time.

Forgive yourself

We all fall down from time to time. The occasional lapse is allowed. It’s not uncommon to put something off for ten minutes and then find you’ve put it off for ten days.

So long as this doesn’t happen all the time, you can let yourself off the hook. You’ll probably procrastinate less on the next task if you forgive yourself.

Procrastination can happen when you suffer a delay beyond your control, like when you’re waiting on a crucial library book to be available. Even then, you can find ways to move beyond the initial setback. Sometimes you do just have to wait. That gives you time to spend on other stuff anyway! 😉

How will you keep the procrastination beast at bay today?