An Easy Way to Teach Citations

And, lo, in the 5th week of the semester, as the piles of papers, lab reports, and other assorted grading loomed ever larger, a great cry went out over the land: Can any of these students cite correctly?

Whether it’s MLA, APA, Chicago, Turabian, or any other style, students often give format and citation questions short shrift.  Some will turn to sites such as the Citation Machine, Citation Builder, or HackCollege’s new Bibliograph! bookmarklet–but even such services, when they are accurate (and they often aren’t), don’t correct for things such as page margins, double-spacing, etc.  And so things slip.

ProfHacker is here to help.

I generally take two different approaches: First, with all students I encourage the use of tools such as Zotero, to automate the management of references and notes as they work their way through college.  That’s more of a long-term solution.  And, with all students I emphasize the importance of providing readers an easy-to-read paper and with the ability to follow up on your sources.  (This is why my favorite feature in Wikipedia is the “link to a permanent version of this page.”)

But, in a second step, I also decide how much I care that these particular students learn a particular style with any real detail.   And, really, with most general education courses, I’ve decided I don’t care. If you’re never going to take another English class, then what difference does it make whether you’ve mastered MLA style’s nuances?  So in lower-division classes I just hit a few key points, and that’s it.

Courses for majors are a different thing, and so I expect that students know, or need to know, MLA style.  And here I borrow an insight from coaching youth sports: If you want students to get better at something, you can’t just explain it, you have to let them practice it directly, not along the way to something else.  And so what I’ve done is developed an MLA style assignment.  Here’s the direct link. (I’ve mentioned this assignment briefly before.)  Key features:

  • It’s ungraded, but it has to be successfully completed before any graded assignment will be accepted.
  • By using Lorem Ipsum text instead of actual writing, it ensures that all the focus is on  style/citation questions–neither the student nor I can get distracted by pesky things like meaning or grammar.
  • Once the students have completed it, they have a model that they can use in the future, and hopefully a little bit of muscle memory. (“The button to change page margins is on the Formatting Palette in Word.”)

How do you teach your students good citation practices? Do you care whether they use your discipline’s style?  Explain in comments!

Image is by flickr user tvol / CC licensed

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