An Education


A few weeks ago I was at a wonderful training session, which highlighted ways to use the iPad in special education. It was well-presented, thought-provoking, and encouraging — three things which always make my day.

During the presentation, however, I was involved in a brief exchange which has continued to bother me. The trainer was presenting on a paper writing tool which allowed you to copy text from an embedded web-browser and copy it into a paper (whereupon it was automatically formatted as a quote). What I didn’t notice, however, was how the app recorded the site from which the quote came. This is a big issue for a research paper, so I raised my hand and asked, “Does this app keep a record of where the quote came from? Does it create a citation reference?” The trainer shrugged and said, “No, unfortunately not, you still have to do that by hand.” I could tell that the trainer thought, as I did, that this was a glaring omission. Before I could respond, however, an older woman grumbled, “As well you should.” she then turned and glared at me and said, “Says the English teacher.” It wasn’t an appropriate moment to take up the challenge, so I let it drop (see, I can keep my mouth shut… occasionally).

I have no doubt that students should know what a bibliography is, or what the proper formatting of a citation should be — but it seemed like this teacher believed that they should always be done by hand. She seemed worried about the mechanics, getting people to know how to use the “one true tool,” and I’m not certain that’s good enough. In fact, if I were a teacher today I’d probably encourage students to use Zotero, End Note, or some other bibliography tool to create their citation. It would make the writing of the paper the focus, rather than worrying if something is being cited correctly.

Still, in this world of automatically generated bibliographies, how can we teach students the concept? One method is what the aforementioned teacher seemed to champion, we make the students do it by hand after learning the one, true, method. This is great, until you come up with a media not covered by the in-grained method or go to a school which requires another method entirely. The latter actually happened to me, in high school I was taught “in-text documentation,” but when I got to college I needed to switch to footnotes. It was a pain. It is because of personal experience I think there is a better way of teaching citations.

First, I’d use my bibliography tool to pull, up a reference in the format we used in the school. Then we would go over the parts of the citation and discuss why each segment was needed. After this, I would take the same citation, but format it another style. We could present the two styles next to each other and ask, “ What’s different?” Following this we could discuss why the differences might exist. This way, students could see that there is more than one style of citing references, grapple with why all the information is important in a citation, and ponder why different styles exist. Perhaps we’d practice for a bit using the method preferred by the school, and I’d throw in some curve balls to deliberately trip up the students (change the media, put in a translated work, make them cite a multi-volume series, etc.). After the curve-balls we could go back to step one and look at the correct citation, along with other styles. Then, because schools are poor, I’d teach them how to use Zotero with a free office suite like Libre Office (incidentally, this is one area where mobile computing is seriously lacking at the present).

I feel, in this way, students get more than the “how,” they also get some of the “why.” This is, after all, what education is supposed to do — it helps us scratch the surface of our knowledge and come up with new ways of asking, “Why?” Simply giving students, “how” is a great disservice.


  1. jimgetz says:

    The biggest issue is getting students to realize that citation is important to begin with. Making it an additional encumbrance isn’t going to help anyone. I really don’t care how my students cite, just that they do.

    1. wezlo says:

      This is kinda where I’m at..

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