Annotated bibliographies

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An annotated bibliography is a list of academic sources followed by a short précis of around 100-200 words. Each entry consists of a fully referenced academic source using a particular style guide (Harvard, Chicago, MLA, APA etc.) accompanied by a short description/analysis. Although sources tend to be text based, they might also be online resources, audio recording or video clips. As in all assessment, when setting this type of task the teacher should state their expectations and make these clear to the student. For example, the teacher may wish the student to show a breadth of reading, or they may wish the student to focus on one particular tranche of literature. The teacher should also make it clear to the student whether they expect a summary of key arguments or a critique of the arguments put forward. Some general guidance on the range/number of sources to be used might be useful as it will help set expectations. The focus of this form of assessment is not simply to list as many sources as possible but to show an understanding of these sources.

Advantages of annotated bibliographies

  • Gives good grounding in the topic/field.
  • Supports and develops research skills.
  • After marking, it can be shared between peers as a resource.
  • Keeps students focussed on core messages in the texts.
  • Students can start working quite quickly as they don’t need to digest all the texts before they start.
  • Can help students to connect a range of sources and see various perspectives.
  • Great study aid for later exams and essays.

Challenges of annotated bibliographies

  • Students are not often aware of this method of assessment, so might not know what is expected of them.
  • Many summaries of key texts already exist.
  • Students might just rework abstracts instead of reading whole papers.
  • Takes more time to write an annotated bibliography than students and teachers might think.
  • Can be difficult to reduce a large text which covers many areas.
  • Teachers can find it difficult to mark across the full scale of available marks.

How students might experience annotated bibliographies

Since this method of assessment is often unfamiliar to students the format should be carefully explained. Students should avoid writing overlong general summaries of sources. Instead, they should attempt to summarise the whole source in one initial sentence then spend the remainder of the annotation discussing points such as the quality of the arguments put forward; the academic rigour of the source; the perspective taken by the source; the theoretical underpinnings of the source, or the possible impact of the source. Students should also be wary of using adjectives and adverbs in annotated bibliographies as they use up word count and offer value judgements that they might not be able to support. The finished annotation is expected to be a flowing text rather than a sequence of assertive statements. Generally, in an annotated bibliography, the sources are arranged in one alphabetical list; however, teachers might give further guidance if they would prefer sources to be arranged chronologically (to show the development of a concept) or thematically (to show different perspectives on a particular topic). Teachers should also make it clear whether they expect students to ‘top and tail’ their work – giving it a short overall introduction and a concluding paragraph that draws together key points.

Reliability, validity, fairness and inclusivity of annotated bibliographies

Using a clear framework that sets out what is to be done; how it will be assessed, and how marks will be allocated, will support the validity of this form of assessment. The emphasis here is on clarity of instruction so that students are fully aware of what is expected of them from the start. With an appropriate marking system, annotated bibliographies can allow good candidates to produce work that will distinguish them through their selection of sources; their capacity to reference; the quality of their writing, and their analytical insights. Annotated bibliographies also support inclusivity through allowing students a choice of topic and approach. Students are empowered to pursue arguments that they feel are particular to them through being encouraged to select their own set of sources. Teachers can also support students through giving them access to sources of information such as online databases and through guiding them to make use of subject librarians.

How to maintain and ensure rigour in annotated bibliographies

Using a clear set of intended learning outcomes that expects students to produce more than a simple retelling of a source should encourage students to work at an investigative/analytical level. Having three/four marking criteria that address different aspects of the task should help maintain rigour during the marking process as students are then allocated marks for particular aspects of the task: referencing, appropriate selection of sources, academic literacy etc. Marking and moderation should follow departmental practice.

How to limit possible misconduct in annotated bibliographies

With easy access to online sources students can access a short précis of almost any source and rework it as their own (a more obvious form of plagiarism would involve a simple ‘cut and paste’ of available summaries). Students should be provided with clear guidance as to how to avoid academic misconduct. Such misconduct can be limited through the use of plagiarism detection software but the teacher can also reduce the possibility of misconduct by designing marking criteria that focus on how students critique the sources in relation to a specific question set. Teachers may also ask students to write a brief introduction to their work that explains how/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. In doing so, any student who has plagiarised ideas will find it hard to organise these disparate voices into a cohesive summary.

LSE Examples

Further resources


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