Using an annotated bibliography to assess learning
An annotated bibliography is a selected list of sources (texts, primary sources and/or internet sites) reported in an agreed referencing convention and accompanied by a short summary or analysis. The main focus is not to provide a list of sources but to demonstrate an understanding of these sources. Annotated bibliographies can be a useful starting point for a literature review.
Different types of annotated bibliographies
There are two main types of annotated bibliography depending on their purpose and function.
A descriptive or informative annotated bibliography usually summarises a source, describes its distinctive features and usefulness for researching a particular topic or question. It also describes the author's main arguments and conclusions without making an evaluative judgement on what the author says.
An analytical or critical annotated bibliography not only summarises the material but it analyses the author’s argument, examines the strengths and weaknesses of what is presented, and considers the applicability of the author's conclusions to the research being conducted.
What can annotated bibliographies assess?
This method can be used to assess students’ ability to access and manage information. More specifically it can give students the opportunity to demonstrate their competence in
- organising information
- reviewing and paraphrasing information
- collecting data
- comparing sources
Given their format and purpose, annotated bibliographies are not suitable to assess the way in which a coherent and or original argument is presented and developed.
Depending on the assignment, an annotated bibliography might have different purposes:
- introduce students to research activities
- provide a literature review on a particular subject
- help to formulate a thesis on a subject
- demonstrate the research students have performed on a particular subject
- provide examples of major sources of information available on a topic
- describe items that other researchers may find of interest on a topic.
It is useful to produce a clear brief to define the purpose of the annotated bibliography as well as what the annotated bibliography should provide. This could include amongst others:
- full reference details of the text / resource
- details of the method employed by the author
- an overview of the argument made by the author
- identification of the advantages / limits in the way the study was conducted
- an evaluation of the text’s relevance to a specific research question.
It might also be useful to define the range / number of sources that you expect students to include and the order in which they should present them (i.e. alphabetically, thematically, chronologically, etc.).
The brief should also specify if students are expected to preface the bibliography with a short overall introduction and include a concluding paragraph that draws together key points.
Clear marking criteria should be set as part of the design of the task and shared with the students.
Diversity & inclusion
Annotated bibliographies, when supported by an appropriate marking rubric, provide an opportunity for students to distinguish themselves through their selection of sources, their ability to reference, the quality of their writing, and their analytical insights. This method can also support inclusivity by allowing students a choice of topic, sources and approach. It can be a powerful way to empower students by giving them the opportunity to contribute to the curriculum and can contribute to efforts to decolonise the curriculum. Consideration should be given as to how these elements will impact on the quality of the annotated bibliography and whether they should be incorporated into the intended learning outcomes and marking criteria.
Students should be provided with clear guidance as to how to preserve academic integrity. There is a wide range of annotated bibliographies available on the web so students might be tempted to either use pre-existing materials or rework abstracts instead of reading the whole text.
One way of reducing the risk of misconduct is to design marking criteria that focus on how students critique the sources in relation to a specific question. It might also be useful to ask students to write a brief introduction to their work that explains how and why they selected the sources and a brief conclusion that pulls together the key points raised across the various sources into a cohesive argument in relation to the question set. (Click here for further guidance on plagiarism.)
Student and staff experience
This type of task can help develop students’ ability to do independent research, identify relevant sources and write a clear and concise evaluation of these texts. It can be a useful way to give students a good grounding in the topic and help them to connect a range of sources and see various perspectives. Once marked they can also be shared between peers as a resource and it can function as a study aid for later assessed work.
Students might be unfamiliar with the format of this task; it is therefore important to share examples of work with students and carefully explain what is expected. In order to avoid students writing long general summaries of sources they should be given the opportunity to practice summarising the whole source in one initial sentence. Once they have mastered this, they can then develop the rest of the annotation and expand on the:
- quality of the arguments put forward
- academic rigour of the source
- perspective taken by the source
- theoretical underpinnings of the source
- possible impact of the source.
Given the need to summarise and the short word count available, students should be particularly wary of making unsupported judgements and sweeping generalisations.
Both students and staff might underestimate the time it takes to write an annotated bibliography. To ensure the workload is manageable it might be useful to consider the type of sources, i.e. depending on the time allocated to this it might be more realistic for students to produce a good annotated bibliography of a selection of shorter articles rather than of a range of very long texts or books. Careful definition of the task in this way can define the workload and time spent.