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Using Zotero in the classroom

Comic-book style graphic of explosion with the word Zotero superimposed
Pow! Zotero sure is exciting!

In a previous post, I introduced Zotero–a free, open-source research tool–and suggested exploring ways to use it in classroom activities and student assignments. Zotero has been part of many librarians’ research and instructional toolkits since its early days, so the idea that it should have a place in the classroom is by no means a new one. Instructors have also been incorporating it directly into their courses for some time, often with the explicit goal of improving students’ literacies and familiarity with individual and collaborative research practices.

One of the hardest things to do in the span of a single class is to contextualize new information so that students learn to see individual facts or concepts in relation to one another. A shared Zotero collection is one way to engage students directly in that process of contextualization, helping them develop a more realistic view of the depth and breadth of a particular field of study than is often possible in an introductory or survey course. As a bonus, it happens to be useful to you as an instructor as well, since the collection created by one cohort of students can become a resource to be used in future courses or, perhaps, to provide new examples or readings you can add to the course when revising it.

Let’s say that I’m teaching an introductory environmental science course whose purpose is to give students a broad conceptual foundation for studying both the environment and the impact of human activities on it. I’ve decided that I’m going to unify the various topics we’ll cover by focusing on a common theme that we’ll return to throughout the quarter: modern agricultural practices and the challenges of mitigating their environmental consequences while also feeding a rapidly growing human population. So while the course as a whole will include units that introduce atmospheric science, ecology, biodiversity, and so on, each unit approaches those specific topics by considering their effects on some particular aspect of agriculture, and vice versa. For example, a unit that addresses freshwater ecosystems might include a discussion of the effects of nitrogen runoff resulting from industrial agriculture.

One option for incorporating Zotero into this course comes immediately to mind: a shared library used to conduct an informal literature review of either scientific publications or news articles from more mainstream sources. For this ongoing assignment, students would be responsible for adding a designated number of new articles to the library–say, one every week–and then using Zotero’s notes feature to provide a brief synopsis that summarizes key points and connects them to concepts introduced in class or in other readings. As part of this weekly task, students would also have to add appropriate tags to each article they contribute. This is a good exercise in condensing complex information into its most essential form (it’s surprisingly challenging to accurately summarize an article in, say, just five keywords!).

The tagging exercise is also a good way to make the collection yield information about the topics that students are most interested in or, perhaps, that are most widely reported on in the media. Here’s where Zotero’s metadata capabilities begin to shine. Using the tags search pane, you can start to identify conceptual linkages based on articles that share particular keywords; those connections can lead to interesting insights, or highlight particular clusters or gaps that become good opportunities for class discussion or for the instructor to redirect attention in some way.

Although Zotero is first and foremost a tool for managing bibliographic information, its organizational capabilities make it perfectly capable of storing other types of media — images, videos, audio files. With that in mind, you could easily adapt the assignment so that it focuses on images that reveal something about the relationship between agriculture and the environment. In this version, students would add visual media only; in place of a synopsis, the notes students include might briefly analyze elements in the image or describe how the image tells a particular story about humans and the environment.

There’s ample room to adjust and experiment with this basic approach, adapting it to the objectives and circumstances of your course. But this is a reasonable and straightforward starting point for trying out Zotero with your students. Let me know if you decide to give it a whirl: I’d love to follow up on this post with examples and insights from EvCC faculty who are using Zotero in their own courses. And it’s also worth mentioning that the fantastic librarians here at EvCC are also familiar with using Zotero and are always eager to help you and your students use it for research and citation.

In a future post, I’ll discuss a couple more tricks Zotero has up its sleeve that make it even more useful for generating insights about collections that students create and curate.

Agriculture by Devon D’Ewart licensed under Creative Commons.