How Can We Help Students Cite?

Teaching students to use APA style effectively can be a frustrating experience, particularly since most of us feel that everyone should already know how to cite sources correctly. In fact, continuing reductions in support for high-school and undergraduate education, coupled with an ongoing over-emphasis on standardized testing, mean that most students probably have a shaky command of one citation system—usually the Modern Language Association format—and that they probably have not used it frequently or consistently. That means that students in introductory Social Work courses may be less prepared than we would expect. Fortunately, however, we can help.

Tips to Make Your Grading Easier: Teaching Attribution and Documentation

We’ve all offered to talk about APA style with our students at one time or another—or even bring in an outside expert to help out—but these conversations can actually make things worse if we don’t prepare the field effectively. We or our experts may find ourselves pelted with hyper-specific nitpicky questions, and we may answer these questions with laser-like precision—and then we may receive papers that still seem incapable of following the most basic precepts.

This guide offers three tips to help ground the nitpicky details in a basic, straightforward explanation, and all three tips are based on a core confusion about what citation is meant to accomplish: students may think they have problems with documentation (following formatting guidelines exactly, providing enough information to locate a source), when what they really have are problems with attribution (correctly attributing information to their sources). In other words, getting all of the commas, periods, and references entries formatted correctly isn’t going to help students if they’re unintentionally plagiarizing by failing to attribute information correctly—or if they’ve composed a paper that has nothing to say in the first place! We can help students do better with APA style by adopting a few key best practices.

TIP #9: Minimize Hysteria

As suggested in several of these Tips, we need to pick our battles when it comes to evaluating student papers—for more than one reason. Writing is an extraordinarily complex skill. Faced with a paper soaked in “red ink,” students won’t always be able to prioritize their efforts effectively, and may actually make their writing worse by focusing on the wrong issues.

We can help students address serious problems by focusing their attention (and ours) on those, and not wasting our red ink on minor errors. By reducing grades significantly for content, argumentation, and attribution errors, we tacitly tell students that these are the important issues. By reducing grades equally for errors in documentation, we tacitly tell students that these errors are just as important. Because missed commas, periods, or formatting errors look easy to fix, students often fixate on them, giving up on the more complex and difficult matter of making an effective argument.

Especially for undergraduates, nitpicky scoring on APA documentation errors does not improve writing. It simply increases stress, possibly reducing writing self-efficacy, increasing writing anxiety, and probably increasing the likelihood of ineffective papers and/or plagiarism. That’s not to say such minor errors shouldn’t play any role in the grading process—the role should just be proportional to their importance.

Of course, problems with attribution need to be addressed immediately and clearly, particularly for students who are unclear on the purpose of their work as a task and as an assessment. For more on clarifying these aspects of the writing situation, see the preceding sections of this guide.

TIP # 10: Lead by Example

Part One: Model what we teach

Many of us probably already present ourselves as good models for student behavior in many ways, but we can help students understand and use APA effectively by using it correctly ourselves—at every opportunity. We can show them what correct APA style looks like in powerpoint presentations, in handouts, and even in our syllabi, if we quote, cite, and reference sources in each of these places. But every time we quote something without providing an APA citation, or provide a non-APA-formatted...

Part Two: Clarify samples

In addition to modeling effective documentation ourselves, we can also offer sample papers, to give students a sense for what a good assignment looks like. It’s important, though, that we clarify how these samples are meant to be taken. Because students often have trouble memorizing the rules for a citation system, they may take sample papers as “templates,” and try to reproduce them exactly. By making clear that the sample paper is meant to help with concepts, content, and tone, rather than the...

TIP # 11: Provide (Many!) Resources

Most of us probably already list a resource or two on our syllabi, or on our Blackboard site for our courses. Some even reinforce these points verbally in class, or in emailed announcements. But in this realm, more is always better: most of us probably could provide one more source or example. As this guide suggests, the Purdue Online Writing Lab is a useful resource, but even it can be a little counterintuitive to navigate. If our students are having difficulty with APA (or if they’re undergraduates), it may be important to demonstrate how to use the OWL in class—and how to get to this guide, for that matter. Syllabi, too, might list resources that go beyond any one website—up to and including where to turn for in-person assistance.


Purdue Online Writing Lab


Here is a brief sample of what a canvas course (or syllabus) might include:


For help with all aspects of the writing process, the UTA School of Social Work has provided A Writing Guide for Social Work, an online resource available on the Writing Resources page, located here:

Writing Resources

APA Style Guides

Everyone should have an APA Style Manual, but you may find the Purdue Online Writing Lab’s style guide useful as a supplement. The OWL APA guide includes information on formatting, in-text citations, and references, and can be found here:

Prude Online Writing Lab

For specific questions about precise elements of APA Style, you can consult a public resource maintained by the APA editors themselves, the APA Style Blog, located here

APA Style Blog

Further Assistance: For additional questions about APA style, feel free to consult the Social Work Librarian, and the Social Work Writing Resource Coordinator. The UTA library also provides workshops on APA style for social-science students every semester, and offers a variety of writing-related resources.

A Writing Guide for Social Work Created in 2011-2018 by Christopher D. Kilgore for the School of Social Work at the University of Texas at Arlington