Teaching with Zotero: Building Learning Communities & Research Skills

This is the first of two blog posts about the recent workshop “Supporting Stronger Papers & Research,” offered at this year’s Teaching for Technology Day by Adam Balcziunas (Electronic Resources Librarian) and Andrea Baer (Instruction/Reference Librarian). The first post discusses the citation manager Zotero as a tool for collaborative learning; the second entry looks at the digital research guides LibGuides as a way to support student research.    

At last week’s Teaching for Technology Day, I asked faculty what challenges they face with giving student research assignments. Getting students to find credible sources, to evaluate sources critically, and to research through tools other than Google: these are very common frustrations for instructors who incorporate a research component into their curriculum. Most students tend to resist researching beyond Google, and perhaps even fewer carefully evaluate their sources and integrate them into their work in critical and reflective ways.

How can instructors respond to these student tendencies? While there is no magic answer to this question, there are numerous ways of developing the research components of a course that encourage more critical and reflective engagement in the research process. The online citation manager Zotero is one rich technology tool that can serve this goal.


Zotero is an online citation manager that functions as an Add-on in the web browser Firefox. In short, Zotero allows you to collect, organize, cite, and share research sources online.


Basic functions of Zotero

  • Access sources online
  • Create bibliographic citations
  • Organize sources into folders
  • Add attachments, notes, and tags to sources
  • Share sources with individuals or groups
  • Create group libraries

Gathering sources: Zotero simplifies the process of gathering and managing sources when researching through databases, library catalogs, and the Internet. As the Zotero software “reads” the bibliographic information in, for example, a list of database articles, you can add any or all of those sources to your Zotero library with a couple of clicks.

Note: No citation manager is perfect; they will make mistakes in formatting citations. When teaching Zotero, emphasize to students that they must check their citations for accuracy. A citation manager is no replacement for understanding the guidelines for any given citation style.

Managing sources: Citations can be organized into folders, and tags, notes, and attachments such as PDFs can be added to individual citations. You can then search your Zotero library using keywords.

Sharing sources: If you wish to share your library with others, invite individuals to view and/or add to your library. There is also an option to make the library entirely public, though you should not do this if includes attachments of copyrighted material, such as database articles.


  • Support group and individual research and writing projects
  • Encourage evaluation of sources (add tags and notes to sources)
  • Build learning communities and information sharing
  • Track student progress

Gathering and evaluating sources: Used in its simplest form, Zotero helps students to manage their sources for research projects. Having a central place to store citations and comment on them can facilitate reflection on and integration of the sources into a paper or other research assignment. The ability to add notes to individual citations is especially useful for encouraging evaluation of the relevance and credibility of sources. This focus on evaluation discourages students from simply throwing in sources for the sake of meeting an assignment requirement.

Supporting group work and community building: Zotero becomes an especially exciting teaching tool when used for collaborative projects. Individuals can share their sources with others, and can explain to one another how those sources support their academic work. Furthermore, students can offer one another feedback on their evaluations and uses of specific sources. Through such conversations, students have opportunities to build learning communities and to develop understandings of scholarship and research as parts of a dialogic and often communal process. (To further reinforce the importance of evaluating sources, an instructor might use Zotero to help in conducting a peer workshop on source evaluation and/or on integration of sources into a larger assignment.)

Tracking student progress: Many faculty express their frustration with the quality of sources used in student papers. Often in these instances the instructor does not know what sources the student planned to use until the final paper has been submitted.

A great advantage of Zotero’s shared libraries is the ability to assess student work over time. Instructors, by emphasizing to students the process of evaluating and integrating sources into an assignment, and by checking student progress at several stages, can increase the likelihood that students will incorporate sources in more reflective and meaningful ways.


Zotero has clear relevance for annotated bibliographies and research projects and papers. Literature professor and ProfHacker blog author Brian Croxall assigns an Annotated Zotero Group Bibliography with clear and detailed instructions. He recommends assigning multiple due dates for various stages of an assignment. This way students can receive feedback during their research process, and they are discouraged from completing all their work in one night. Professor Anne-Marie Deitering also provides an excellent example of her Zotero group bibliography assignment.

When assigning a Zotero bibliography, you may also wish to consider these general suggestions:

  • Provide detailed assignment guidelines.
  • Make clear how/where to get technical support if needed.
  • Use folders and tags to identify key concepts and to organize sources.
  • Use notes to evaluate relevance and credibility of sources.
  • Have students provide feedback to peers on usefulness of sources.


The very basics steps for getting started with Zotero are below. For more detailed instructions please see this Zotero research guide (thanks for Jason Puckett of Georgia State University Libraries for permission to copy and modify the guide), or contact me at andreabaer@kings.edu. Zotero.org also provides extensive documentation and easy-to-follow tutorials.

  • Download Zotero from www.zotero.org through the web browser Firefox.
  • Create a free Zotero account at www.zotero.org.
  • Log into your Zotero account to save citations to your online library.
  • Access citations and add anywhere with Internet access.
  • Save citations directly from the Internet or from databases, or add citations manually.
  • Create a Zotero group. Invite members.

If you use Zotero with any of your classes or students, I would love to hear about your experiences.


3 responses to “Teaching with Zotero: Building Learning Communities & Research Skills

  1. Pingback: Supporting Stronger Papers & Research: Digital Research & Course Guides at King’s College | CELT Blog

  2. Thanks a lot for this intro, Andrea. I have found it frustrating that Zotero seems to have trouble importing bibliographic information from EBSCOhost. Do you know of a simple workaround to this problem? When I try to import info from EBSCOhost, Zotero says there is a “known translation problem” or something like that. Is there a known solution?

    • andreabaer

      There was previously a problem with Zotero’s translator and the King’s EBSCOhost databases. Zotero has corrected the problem. If you experience issues using Zotero with any of the King’s Library’s database please let me know. Thanks!