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