by Ernie Kulhanek
English Department
Delaware Technical Community College
Stanton Campus

If you’ve ever read a research paper, you know that students struggle with citation. As a result, they often rely on citation machines widely and freely available on the internet, as well as other resources, such as the “cite” button embedded in EBSCOhost and other library databases. While I typically encourage students to use every resource available to them, I also warn them about the trustworthiness of these machines. Frankly, these programs get it wrong fairly often, and students need to realize that it’s their responsibility to check for errors. In order to instill this lesson, I created a straightforward activity to help students get stuck in the mess that is APA citation, muck around a bit, and then pull themselves free.

Technology is a Tool, Not a Crutch.

A standard tool for students at Delaware Tech is the APA Citation Style Guide, an 11-page, color-coded tome of rules and models for the plethora of categories (22 to be exact) into which any given source might fall. The goal of my lesson was to get students to start with a citation machine but end with this guide. That way, they would learn to use technology as a tool rather than a crutch.

To start, I split the students into groups. I had each group log on to EBSCOhost. (Not every section met in a computer lab. There is a separate, paper and pencil version of this activity for those unfortunate souls.) Once logged in to EBSCOhost, the students and I (via the Smartboard at the front of the room) located five specific articles. We found each of the five articles in the database and clicked the “cite” button, which provides an automatic APA citation. I then had students copy and paste the citation on to a references page in Microsoft Word.

Reinforce the Old. Practice the New.

This process of searching for sources was useful because it reinforced a few earlier lessons. For one, students had previously been taught how to use the library databases but usually would default to Google when they get frustrated. This activity forced them to find five specific articles in the databases. One was extremely difficult to find utilizing traditional search methods, so I was also able to illustrate the importance of correct spelling and proper usage of Boolean operators (and, or, not). Once the citations were copied, we pasted them into a Word document and began making a template of a correctly formatted references page. From there, we moved on to editing the actual references that the magic citation machine had done for us (I believe only one of the five citations was actually correct).

At this point I had each group double-check all five computer generated citations with the examples found within the APA Citation Style Guide. It took some time, but they eventually found and corrected the errors. We did the first citation together, and the groups did the remaining four. Once they were finished, I randomly assigned each group one citation to present to the class and explain why theirs was the correct version. (It is important to note that I did not tell them which example they were presenting until they had finished ALL of the citation corrections; otherwise, they would only have done theirs.) Once the presentations were given, the class as a whole had to come to a consensus as to which was correct. It just so happens that collectively they were able to correct all of them.


The students enjoyed this lesson because rather than being lectured on the correct way to cite (where to place a comma, which title was italicized, the order in which names appear) they were able to “investigate” the free citation machines that “did all of the work for them.” I think this underscored to them the importance of being able to review and edit things rather than rely on the internet to do something correctly. They were also able to work in groups, present findings to the rest of the class, and work together as a whole in order to troubleshoot errors.

I liked the activity because it allowed me to review old concepts (using a library database, formatting a references page), practice current concepts (formatting citations for their Summary/Response article), and preview upcoming concepts (as this related to the research paper as well as the APA Citation Style Guide as a whole). I was also able to teach them a lesson about relying on internet resources to do work for them (correctly) as well as incorporate technology, small group work, and student presentation as a means to deliver instruction. Overall, I think the lesson went well all three times I delivered it. I’ll certainly use it again in the future. Citation can get messy, and students need a chance to muck around a bit if they are ever going to learn to keep their references page clean.

What is the “messy” material you need to cover in your discipline? How do you encourage students to learn it by “mucking around”? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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