Learning Plans & Activities
Considering the Audience: Common Knowledge Questions

The audience and topic for a research paper needs to be considered when deciding whether information is common knowledge or needs a citation. Students can practice this important judgement call by analyzing sentences which are typical information for the school community.


English language arts
Social studies




English language arts teacher
Social studies teacher


Students will be able to consider the audience when deciding whether information is common knowledge.

Students will be able to consider the topic of the paper as a factor in whether information needs a citation.


Method of projection

List of 5-10 questions about topics which are common for the school community; this includes the people, situations, and the information students have studied; sample questions are found below and can be changed to reflect your community situation and priorities


10-15 minutes as a warmup or classwork


AASL National School Library Standards

II.C.1. Engaging in informed conversation and active debate.

Common Core State Standards

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.8.8. Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, using search terms effectively; assess the credibility and accuracy of each source; and quote or paraphrase the data and conclusions of others while avoiding plagiarism and following a standard format for citation.

Instructional Procedure

During the process of teaching micro-paraphrasing, use this short discussion to help students learn to discern common knowledge. Project the prepared questions from a computer onto a screen for students. Differences of opinion and discussion are encouraged for this exercise. Students should answer if the sentence is common knowledge or if it needs a citation. The instructor should change the audience context during the discussion.

These sample questions—and subsequent discussions—could be typical of a private high school.

1. Ben Rubeor is the head lacrosse coach at Loyola Blakefield.

DISCUSSION: Within the school community, this is common knowledge which does not need a citation. Rubeor would not need to be identified as a lacrosse coach. It is already known. If this information is used in a publication about regional or national lacrosse in secondary schools, it would likely be stated as Loyola Blakefield Lacrosse Head Coach Ben Rubeor which identifies him so a citation is unnecessary.

2. Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939.

DISCUSSION: This falls under the category of subject area common knowledge for history. This information is found in many different Internet and print sources about World War II. It does not need a citation for a history research paper about World War II. However, if this sentence is used in another subject area, it may need a citation. For example, for a literature paper which tracks changes in the works of writers through historical events, it should be considered for a citation.

Note to instructors: You may find that students are uncomfortable not citing this sentence because it includes a date. Explain that this type of information which is stated in multiple places with a basic Internet search does not need a citation.

3. In his book The Greatest Generation, Tom Brokaw believes that the women at home were the true heroes of World War II.

DISCUSSION: This sentence needs a citation in all situations. It is a paraphrased opinion of the author, Tom Brokaw.

4. Shakespeare was the greatest writer of the Elizabethan period.

DISCUSSION: This is an opinion shared throughout history about Shakespeare. It is known by people with a high school education. If this sentence was copied exactly from a source by an author who is a Shakespeare expert, it should have quotation marks around it with a citation.

5. The latest statistics show that tuition for private high schools on the East Coast has increased by 15% since 2010.

DISCUSSION: While people who are associated with private schools may have some knowledge of this, the exact percentage means that this sentence needs a citation in all situations. The exact percentage of tuition increase across all schools is not common knowledge.

6. The character of Beowulf is the basis for the superheroes depicted by Marvel Comics.

DISCUSSION: This is an opinion which should be cited by a direct quote for all audiences.

7. Even after a serious head injury from the Taliban, Malala Yousafzai and her father have continued to advocate for the education of girls in the Middle East.

DISCUSSION: This is well-known information. It is common knowledge for all audiences.

8. San Francisco was the backdrop for the social commentary of Beat poets like Jack Kerouac, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Gregory Corso.

DISCUSSION: For students studying the Beat poets, this is common knowledge. However, for a paper which discusses overall social changes in the United States, this should be considered for a citation because it mentions San Francisco.

9. Rosa Parks attended the Montgomery Industrial School for Girls.

DISCUSSION: This is not common knowledge about Rosa Parks. However, it is readily available through Internet searches and reference books about Rosa Parks' life. For a history paper on Rosa Parks' contribution to the Civil Rights Movement, this would probably not be important enough to mention. However, it should be cited in a paper about the role of industrial schools in American history.

10. A principle of Jesuit education for boys is the formation of "Men for Others."

DISCUSSION: If this sentence is used for a research paper at a Jesuit school, no citation is necessary. This is common knowledge within this educational community. For all other uses of this information, a citation will be necessary.


Students can initially discuss the questions in pairs or small groups before coming back together as a whole class.

As an extension, ask students to create lists for each other of "common knowledge" statements for a particular community they are a part of and then lead a discussion about when citations would be needed for them.


Ask students to complete an exit slip responding briefly in writing to a common knowledge statement and when it would and would not need a citation.

Additional Resources

Darr, Terry. Combating Plagiarism: A Hands-On Guide for Librarians, Teachers, and Students. Libraries Unlimited, 2019.

About the Author

Terry Darr is library director at Loyola Blakefield, an independent college preparatory school for boys in grades 6–12. She teaches more than 200 information literacy classes each school year. The last ten years have taught her how to design instruction that works for her students. She is a regular book reviewer for ALA and Library Quarterly. Darr has presented on plagiarism education and micro-paraphrasing in the Maryland and DC areas.

MLA Citation Darr, Terry. "Considering the Audience: Common Knowledge Questions." School Library Connection, March 2019, schoollibraryconnection.com/Home/Display/2221947.

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Entry ID: 2221947

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