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Education & Development

Using sources: Considering breadth as well as depth

Updated Wednesday, 1st November 2017

How do you use sourcing material and referencing in an assignment? Here's a guide to sources in today's digital environment. 


I thought I would follow up on the discussion on sourcing material and referencing, which I hope identified some useful tips for you? I suspect this is a subject area which you may not find particularly exciting or fun, however I would argue it is one which can give your assignment, published article or even blog, the respect and recognition that the whole piece may deserve.

In this article, we will consider the benefits of thinking more expansively about sources, look in more detail at sources in todays’ digital environment. To conclude, I will share one of my favourite books with you, favourite in part due to its readability, combined with extensive use of referencing.

Sources can be many and varied

Typically for assignment writing you will expect and be expected to provide appropriate referencing to key concepts, models and theories from associated module units and related texts. These are your core sources of information. You will be identifying these to demonstrate for example, that you understand and acknowledge a theory as, say, underpinning an example, a case study that addresses the subject of your assignment. You may however have an opportunity to use a broader range of sources and thus referencing that extends beyond the explicit supporting theories. Let’s look at some examples.

If your assignment includes practical activity then identifying these sources can add richness and help the reader engage with the processes; try adding a photo of the post-it activity, the discussion that took place with colleagues for example. Use of visual sources has a higher recognition than basic text, hence keeping the reader engaged. Don’t overdo the visuals, one or two in the paper text, or maybe referenced and appended.

You may well have to carry out research a part of your assignment so here again is an opportunity to think more expansively about your sources and how they can help bring to life your writing. Linking  explicitly to a video or audio that you have recorded may not be technically possible within the assignment marking process, however you could take the opportunity to provide short but pithy extracts from the full transcript. Again, this helps to bring the reader into the process, empathise with the challenges and the nature of the outputs you are providing. Of course, you will need to properly reference these wider sources. As well as referencing make sure you acknowledge diagrams, visuals in the text (e.g. ‘ Fig 1 illustrates how the economic value changes over the decade’); don’t just add them in as an afterthought!            

Thinking differently about digital sources

Today we may feel overwhelmed by digital content. A search engine query can reveal thousands of possible sources for the information you require. You may reflect on how the search for sources has changed over the last decade or so; from a step by step process, maybe using a research agency or visiting a library and identifying patiently the one source you needed.

We do need to be cognisant of the breadth and detail of digital information sources potentially available to us now. As a first step, it may be helpful to step back and consider the big digital picture.  You may well have heard of and used the term ‘Big Data’, perhaps a scary concept? As organisations develop and utilize systems that can capture and store the huge quantity of [big] data it interacts with - often referred to as Customer relationship management (CRM) or Marketing information systems (MIS), so we have the ability increasingly to source valuable information from these systems. If you don’t have direct access to query such systems in your organisation, you may well be able to make a request though your Information manager.

If we take this a step further, we can begin to understand how to categorise digital sources. We may already use video sources, e.g. You Tube and Instagram but to this we are now able to add sensor data (e.g. smart phone GPS location data) and everyday household objects such as fridges, central heating systems are now digitally enabled to capture and react to information and digital signals, all part of digital technology known as the Internet of Things and potentially our sources of information.

You may think this is stretching the sources of information that you may need to consider for your next assignment but the purpose of including such examples is to illustrate the possibilities that exist now for finding and utilizing sources of information and how we can and maybe should be more expansive?     

A wonderful example of referencing helping to deliver a non-fiction masterpiece?

 The purpose of this article has been to take a fresh look how you think about preparing and delivering your assignment. Reflecting on the processes of sourcing and referencing may help you in providing an assignment that is enriched by careful consideration of the breadth and depth of source material. It may help you to deliver an assignment that is clear and enjoyable to read, tells a story the reader will want to continue with to the end, one in which the application of in-paper references is visible but not intrusive but adds to the understanding of the material.

A personal favourite to illustrate the art of sourcing and referencing is The Silk Roads (Frankopan. P 2016) which is over six hundred pages in length, with over one hundred of those being referenced notes. References are numbered to the chapter, ensuring the text flows smoothly but you are only a number away from checking any source, should you for example, want to explore further. It happens to be, in my humble opinion, a wonderful read as well.    


Frankopan, P. (2016): The Silk Roads, A New History of the World, Bloomsbury





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