How Are Sources Used in College?

Professors often ask you to write based on texts written by others. While there can be other sources of information for your writing—e.g., empirical data (like data from experiments or surveys), personal experiences and reflections, films and other video materials—published sources (like articles and books) are frequently required in college writing assignments.

This section consists of two parts: gathering sources and using sources.

Gathering Sources

For those assignments that require you to find your own textual sources, you will need to go beyond a quick internet or library search. You’ll also need to make sure that the sources you find are the kinds that your professor wants and evaluate their credibility. The first three chapters of this section explain the different types of sources you might use, as well as how to locate and evaluate potential sources.

Using Sources

The rest of this section provides guidance for using the sources that you have located and evaluated.

For all of your sources, including any provided by your professor, you’ll need to make sure you read them carefully, taking notes as you go (see Successful College Reading). If you don’t understand your sources, you’ll struggle to use them.

The seven chapters in the second part of this section are designed to strengthen your abilities with the three key ways in which textual sources are used—summarizing, paraphrasing, and quoting—and to help you understand how to incorporate material from your sources well and avoid plagiarism.

Your professors will expect you to use them to do things like the following:Using sources in your work tells your reader about the intellectual heritage of your ideas. Strong thinkers build on the ideas of others, and they give credit to those who came before.

  • Provide background information on a topic
  • Present information or arguments that serve as a foundation for you to extend your own ideas
  • Present information or arguments that serve as a position against which you argue
  • Provide examples of points
  • Lend authority to your claims

Notice that in all of these, your sources support your points by providing evidence for your own points.

What that support looks like varies somewhat by discipline. In the humanities—in literature or philosophy classes, for example—you will be expected to quote from your sources. However, in the natural sciences—biology or physics, for example—you will almost never quote, and you’ll rarely even paraphrase. As you gain experience in your major, you’ll become accustomed to the expectations of that discipline. At the same time, you need to be aware of the different expectations when you take classes outside of your major.

In many ways, though, these differences are only on the surface. What’s important is that you understand the kinds of work that sources can do and how to integrate them into your own work. That’s what this section is designed to help you do.

“Writer” and “Author”

Throughout this section, when I use the word “writer,” I am referring to you, the writer of the current project you are working on. When I use the word “author,” I am referring to the author(s) of the sources you are using.

Authors (your sources) have already written something. Writers (you) are currently writing something. If I mean otherwise, I’ll try to be clear about the change.

You should also read “author” as either singular or plural. Many pieces of writing, particularly scholarly articles, are written by multiple authors. For the sake of simplicity, I’m using the singular form.



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Reading and Writing Successfully in College: A Guide for Students Copyright © 2023 by Patricia Lynne is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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