Essays and rants on libraries, technology, webdev, etc. by Ruth Collings

Zotero Lesson Plan

This lesson plan is presented as-is, designed for an assignment-based lab with first year undergraduate science students. Lines marked with [Q] are questions or tasks directed at students.

Lesson Pre-requisites:

  1. Windows, OS X, or Linux OS (not Chromebook)
  2. Firefox, Chrome, or Safari internet browser (not IE)
  3. Internet connection
  4. Permission to install things on your computer (admin privileges)*
  5. Microsoft Word, Word for Mac, OpenOffice, LibreOffice, or NeoOffice and ability to use one*

*=Zotero can be used without these things, but not to its fullest extent


Zotero does your citations for you. In whatever style you want. And it will do it in your word processor of choice. It bookmarks and downloads articles (or websites, or videos...) for you as you find them online and makes them searchable so you don't lose them. Save a lot of time on the boring tasks of organizing PDFs and writing citations to actually spend time reading articles and writing your paper. And it's free!

Bonus features:

  • Share folders of files with friends in groups
  • Sync your library online to multiple computers
  • Add notes directly to items saved in your library and use them to make an annotated bibliography
  • Search the full text of all the PDFs in your library
  • Access library resources automatically when you save them in Zotero (no more "buy me" links when you're off campus)
  • Use even on computers you don't have admin privileges (bookmarklet)

Lesson Goals:

  • Zotero installed on your computer
  • Zotero add-ons installed on your browser of choice
  • Word processor plug-in installed
  • Save articles to Zotero and identify common errors
  • Insert citations with word processor
    • Change the citation style
    • Edit citations
    • Adding multiple citations
  • Insert Bibliography
  • Understand where to get more help

Out of scope:

  • Knowledge of what a citation/reference is and why citation is important in academic writing
  • What citation style to use in which circumstance
  • How to find articles/books/resources
  • Other reference managers (Refworks, Mendeley, EndNote)
  • General computer troubleshooting
  • How to use a word processor

Practice Materials:

Paragraph of text with citations already inserted in it, and then references at the end. Learners must replace the citations in the original with their own citations. [Originally BIOC 1001 Lab 10 by A.Cockshutt]

Teaching Notes:

  • 50-60 mins total (assuming first year undergrad science students. with more advanced computer users and smaller class, I think you could get it down under 40 mins)
  • 10% of class will struggle and need one-on-one help at every checkpoint due to computer illiteracy-related problems (not actual Zotero problems)
  • Class of <20 people ideal
  • Two helpers plus instructor ideal, 3 helpers if class size is >20
  • Use the sticky note / raise your hand method of identifying people having trouble
  • Make sure the room is set up such that you can walk around and stand/sit next to every student. Helpful if there are extra seats.
  • This is meant to be done live, with the instructor demonstrating each step before getting the students to do it.

Section 1: Introduction

Students should have at least attempted to install Zotero from before arriving at the workshop.
[Q] How many of you have NOT got Zotero installed?

Students have access to MS Word through the university. If not, you can introduce them to the OpenOffice family.
[Q] How many of you do NOT have MS Word or OpenOffice installed?

Most students seem to use Chrome, but a non-trivial number use Safari and a few use IE. IE does not allow 3rd party add-ons so they need to download a different browser or work with someone else.
[Q] How many of you use Internet Explorer for your internet browser?

Hello, introduction. Please help your neighbours. Use stickys/hands to signal trouble.

[Insert Motivation section here]

You are going to need to have four things open for this whole workshop:

  • Internet Browser
  • the Zotero application itself
  • MS Word or equivilent
  • the practice materials document

Section 2: Installation

Demonstrate how the students must have downloaded EITHER the Firefox version OR the general version PLUS the browser plug-in but don't troubleshoot it right now.

The killer feature of Zotero for most people is how it integrates with MS Word. For this, you need to download one more plug-in.

Open the Zotero app OR if you're on Firefox click on the big Z icon

Within the app, look at the bar at the top of the window. Look for a gear shape. Click on that, then click on Preferences.

In the window that just opened, click on Cite.

If your window says "REinstall Word Plug-in" you are good to go. If you do not have OpenOffice you do NOT need to install that plug-in. Vice-versa for people who are using Openoffice and not Word.

If your window says "INSTALL Word Plug-in" please click on it and continue. We will take a break here for a moment, please do the steps I just explained.

Older versions of Mac may instead show a link that says "Get word processor plug-in here". Follow that link and download the right plug-in for your operating system (Windows or Mac) and then open it.

[Q] Please put up your green sticky when you think you have it. Put up a red sticky if you are lost.

To check to make sure your plug-in is working, please QUIT [as opposed to "close" on OSX] Word and re-open it.

Then look for icons that look like THIS. They can be either:

  • on their own floating toolbar (OpenOffice, LibreOffice, NeoOffice, Word for Mac 2004, 2008, 2011)
  • on a tab called Add-Ins (MS Word 2003, 2007, 2010)
  • on a tab called Zotero (MS Word 2013+, Word for Mac 2016+)
  • in the AppleScripts drop-down menu (scroll-shaped symbol in top bar) (Word for Mac 2004, 2008, 2011)

[Q] Please put up your green sticky if you have FOUND those buttons. You do not need to click anything yet, we will move on when everybody is ready. Put up your red sticky if you are having difficulty installing it.

Common problems:

  • Frequently, Mac users do not know the difference between exiting a window and quitting the application.
  • Sometimes it seems you need to quit out of the Zotero app and the browser in addition to quitting out of Word to trigger the add-ins to appear.
  • The scroll icon for the Applescripts menu is really hard to find/explain. If you are helping them with it, you can show them how to turn on that toolbar in the View menu instead, as it's fewer clicks.
  • If all else fails, restart the entire computer

Section 3: Bookmarking citations

This is where it will become obvious that some people clicked the big Download button, but not the smaller browser plug-in buttons underneath.

Now please open your favourite browser.

Depending on the website you're on, the Zotero icon changes shape. On Chrome the icon disappears after installation until you go on an article page and on Safari sometimes it is greyed out. That is why getting them to find an article is key to verifying the browser add-on is working correctly.

The purpose of this practice assignment is to replace the citations in the paragraph with the same papers, cited a different way. To do this, we will need to find each of these papers online and bookmark them in Zotero.

You can achieve this by copy and pasting from the assignment the first citation into Google Scholar. Please try finding the first one and going to its page and then look for an icon that looks like a piece of paper on your browser. If the Zotero add-on is installed, you will see a Zotero icon in a couple different places depending on the browser. In Firefox it is on the top right of the toolbar. On Chrome it's next to the star in the address bar. In Safari it's on the left of the address bar.

Please try clicking on that icon. If it works, you should see a red pop-up window that says it is saving the citation to Zotero.

[Q] If you get that red menu with no errors, please put up your green sticky. If you cannot find that icon or the red box doesn't come up or it shows an error, please put up your red sticky.

Common problems:

  • They installed Zotero but they didn't install the browser add-on. You may have to check the add-ons menu in their browser.
  • They get a red box saying there's a translator error. This means their browser is okay, but they don't have the Zotero app open (for non-Firefox users)
  • Any other misc. problems may be solved by restarting the browser and the Zotero app

If you get this part you can skip ahead and continue finding the articles.

[Q] Once you hit #7-8 please put up your green sticky. If you run into trouble, put up your red.

Once the majority of students have hit green, move on to the next part.

Common problems:

  • In the sample assignment, there were two papers that had to be found that were on researchgate. If you try and save from them, it grabs the PDF but no metadata, or tries to save it as a webpage but not an article.
  • There are two workarounds for this. On Google Scholar search results, your Zotero icon will become a yellow folder. Click on the folder to see a list of the citations on that page. You can choose the right article and press OK to save it from there.
  • Second option is to go back to the Google Search results and click on All * Versions (where * = a number) under the result. You should then see a list of other websites with the same citation and you can go to one of them and get the metadata there.
  • An expert's decision would be made on which metadata is better. Students don't care.
  • If you try to save an article before the page finishes loading, Zotero will save it as a webpage and not as an article. This messes up the formatting of the citations later on.
  • The metadata saved from the website has mistakes, so it becomes obvious in the citations later on. You must check the citation metadata after you save it. Garbage in, garbage out.

Section 4: Adding citations in Word

As the purpose of this assignment is to replace the citations in the paragraph with our own, please copy and paste the paragraph from the assignment document into a new Word document.

What we are now going to do is insert the citation for [article 1] into the paragraph at the position of the current [citation 1].

First, please click on the left-most Zotero icon. This is the insert citation icon, or add citation. You will get a pop-up window asking you which citation style you want to use. Please pick [insert any here] and then okay. After pressing okay you should get a red bar appear on your screen.

[Q] When you get the red bar put up your green sticky. If you are lost, put up your red. Note: older versions of Word for Mac sometimes show a different pop-up menu than the red bar. It's actually easier to use.

The next step is to type into the red bar some key word from the first paper. I often find putting in the first author's last name is easiest. The first paper's first author is [name]. Please type this into the red bar. You should get a drop-down menu. Please select [Paper 1] from the menu. Then press enter again to insert it into the Word doc. The citation should appear in whatever style you set.

[Q] If you can get this to work, please continue to the rest of the citations and put up your green sticky. If you are stuck, please put up your red sticky.

Common problems:

  • They didn't click on the right insert citation button
  • They clicked on insert citation before we got to this step and then just clicked okay through the menu, so their citation style is the default instead of the correct one. Look for the Document Preferences button (gear-shape) and you can change it there.
  • They can't find the paper when they type it into the Zotero search bar. Perhaps they didn't save it correctly or maybe they're spelling it wrong.
  • They haven't put their cursor in the right place to place the citation
  • They get an error when they try to insert the citation. This usually happens because they have already tried to insert a citation there and then deleted it. The hidden Zotero flag is still there and is throwing the error. Make sure you delete the spaces around where the citation was and try again.

Some citations in the paragraph are multiple citations, e.g. citation 2-5. This means to save citations 2, 3, 4, & 5 at this point. We do this by going to the insert citation button, clicking it, getting the red bar, and then when you're in the red bar, type in the first paper, select it, then type in the next paper and select it, and so on. Do it all in the red bar together at the same time. Zotero will cite them correctly in the correct format. Just putting one citation after another separately is not correct.

[Q] Please continue working on your citations and put up your red sticky if you are stuck.

Common problems:

  • They're using the older version of Mac with a different insert citation window. Show the "Multiple Sources" button and how to move citations from the left column to the right.
  • Something is throwing an error when they type things into the bar. There can be NO spaces or commas or anything between articles. Type the name, select from the list, press enter, start typing again. At the end, hit Enter a final time.

If you mess up a citation, rather than deleting and re-inserting it, use the Edit Citation button. You can also fix things like page numbers or author's names if they're wrong.

Section 5: Insert Bibliography

This is the lightbulb moment for most students so hype it up.

Different students hit this stage at different times, depending on how behind the lesson they got.

Put some blank lines between your paragraph and where you want your list of references to go.

Hit the Insert Bibliography button and seriously just give it a minute. If it's blank, it's still working. If you see {Citation} it's still working. Leave it alone. Then -- tah-dah! Full references.

Check them over to make sure they're not obviously wrong. Then you're done your paper.

Section 6: Extra Help & Bonus Features

Introduce them to Zotero Support Site especially Zotero Quick Start Guide if they want a review of the basic parts of this lesson.

Go to Word Processor Plug-in Usage for Word citation help.

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