Amy Sexton, Kaplan University Writing Center Tutor
Learning to use APA and other citation styles correctly is often daunting and frustrating for student writers. For some, citation and formatting may be completely new and foreign concepts. Using a prescribed style and format for writing papers may seem intimidating to these students, but there are some practical but powerful strategies that tutors and teachers can use to make the process of applying a preferred format and style less confounding.
- Suggest students stay away from citation generators– Students are often drawn to software programs and other tools that claim to generate accurate citations and references because they seemingly take the guesswork out of the process. Telling students to avoid using something that is supposed to make life easier may seem counter-intuitive, but, students need to be aware that using these types of programs can be problematic for those who are new to citation styles like APA. First, a beginning student writer may not know enough about citation to correctly use these programs, as their accuracy depends upon the user’s understanding and knowledge of the citation style being used. Then, when the citations or references are created, beginning writers may not have the practice and experience needed to determine their accuracy. They end up submitting papers with formatting and citation errors, and they become even more frustrated when they realize that the shortcut they used has resulted in citations and references plagued with mistakes. Instead of suggesting students use automated citation programs and tools, teachers and tutors can guide them to better understanding how citations and references work through strategies like teaching the generic reference.
- Teach “The Generic Reference” – The experts with the APA Style Blog recommend teaching students to construct generic references. This approach involves asking four simple questions to construct any reference: Who? When? What? Where? The answers to each of these four questions constitute the basic elements of a reference.
The “who” is the author, whether it is an individual author or a corporate or organizational author. The “when” is typically the year the source was published. The “what” is generally the title of the source, and the “where” is the retrieval information or publication information. The APA Style Blog also has individual articles for each of the elements that offer more details:
While a student may not be able to get every single aspect of citing and formatting correct using this approach, chances are he or she will at least have the required elements of the references in the right order. Then, he or she can attend to the details, such as what should be italicized or capitalized and what should be abbreviated and how. Fortunately, these are details that writers do not have to memorize which leads to a third strategy.
- Assure students that they do not have to memorize everything when learning a new style – Tutors and teachers can help students feel less overwhelmed about learning to use APA format and other citation styles by reiterating that there is no need to remember everything. Instead, students can remember the basic elements of reference construction (Who? When? What? Where? for APA style references) and then consult official sources like the APA Style Blog, APA Style, as well as KUWC resources like Common Citations in APA Format, 6th edition to fine tune their formatting. Teaching students how to find and use resources like this will help them immensely more than having them memorize all of the minute details of a citation style.
These three strategies may not encompass all that students need to know about using citation styles successfully, but they should help students approach the process of learning a new style with less trepidation, while adding some useful tools to teachers and tutors’ toolboxes. What are some simple but powerful tools or strategies you use when teaching or tutoring APA and other styles?