Keeping Student Research
on Track

by Sierra Mendez

This article has been re-published from our faculty newsletter, Writing Matters, Spring 2010.

How do your students keep track of the research they do for your class? If students are going to learn to research effectively, they need to develop a system for managing the information and sources they find. It’s worth taking time to talk about this with students, since organizing their research can improve their writing, as well as reduce the possibility of unintentional plagiarism.

You can help your students develop good research habits by introducing them to the following tools—some high tech and some not. Use this list to start a discussion about the research process with your students.

Index cards

Yes, it’s old school, but taking notes on index cards is still an easy, hands-on method of organizing research. Devoting a separate card (or sheet of notebook paper) to each key piece of research allows students to arrange—and rearrange—their supporting information as their paper begins to take shape.

For each source, students can also create a card or page that lists not only bibliographic information, but also a brief summary and a rating of the source’s relevance to their topic. The result is a sort of personal annotated bibliography—and a tool students are far more likely to use.


A binder, especially one with section dividers, can be useful for holding onto and organizing documents and notes. The binder can be divided according to main points, type of data, author, or source.


Designed for extensive research, RefWorks is a web-based program that stores and formats references. The simplicity of its design and its web-based portability make it useful for students. They can use it to create references with templates, access a built-in search engine for compatible databases, and format in-text citations and references for a manuscript.

Another highly useful feature of RefWorks is a downloadable utility called Write-N-Cite. This utility is embedded into programs like Microsoft Word as an icon that links to the student’s database, making inserting citations easy. RefWorks is available free to Aggie students and faculty through the library website at


Zotero is desktop software available as an open-source extension for the Firefox web browser. It is the most functional of the free, open-source products and can easily download records from several databases that are not compatible with RefWorks or EndNote.

Zotero’s features include automatic capture of citation information from websites like Amazon; storage of PDFs, files, links, and whole webpages; flexible note taking with autosave; and a playlist-like library organization.

This program can be downloaded free


EndNote is a desktop program that stores and formats references—a useful option for maintaining large libraries of information. References from compatible databases can be imported into EndNote and then customized and formatted. Another useful feature of EndNote is that, once it’s installed, it can be accessed on multiple computers. Students can download a toolbar onto the computers they use most often and access their data from each one. EndNote software is free to Texas A&M students and faculty and can be accessed at

Perhaps more important than recommending any one tool, though, is helping students realize the importance of managing their research.

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