Slaying the APA dragon with group work

Have you ever taught APA in your communications class? The APA stands for American Psychological Association, the organization that sets the standards and rules for essays and essay format at St. Lawrence College. It governs how we lay out every page of our research papers and cite and reference our sources. I’ve got to say that I’m not a fan and neither are my students.

Most of us were educated in high school on MLA, which stands for Modern Language Association. According to Purdue University’s OWL writing centre, MLA is mainly used for formatting liberal arts assignments while APA is used for science papers. For some reason, however, St. Lawrence College has gone with APA. So we’re stuck with it.

Did I mention that I don’t like APA and that neither do my students? I normally dislike teaching it as it’s not something that should be taught, in my opinion. Learning this method of formatting is about using a template and copying it. I should be teaching classes that expand young minds and concentrate on business writing, not getting students to memorize; they can do that on their own.

Anyhow, I digress. For the last three years, I’ve been struggling to get students to understand APA references and citations. I had tried my own methods for teaching it in the classroom and had borrowed from other teachers whom I highly respect. To no avail. I’m pretty certain the students who excelled at the APA-related assignments were the ones who went out and bought themselves an APA textbook I suggested they get at the campus bookstore. The ones who received the lowest marks were probably the ones who relied on my class handouts and/or a slim guidebook obtained at the library’s writing centre.

Yesterday I nailed it. I slew the APA beast—thanks to a lesson delivery model I learned in my Instructional Delivery class. Our instructor tries to spend as little time as possible lecturing and usually finds ways for us to find and explore for ourselves the information learned with guidance from her. When we have to study complex or extensive material, she often splits us into groups, breaks up the material into a series of smaller, easy-to-digest documents, and has our groups present on each of these sections of the material.

This way, each group becomes an expert in their part of the material and also learns from the others. As each group presents, our instructor makes sure that all the information is correct and included.

As I said, I’d struggled to find a fun and effective way to help students understand APA citations and references and was feeling frustrated. Despite my best efforts, many students had still received poor marks on their latest APA assignment. I cancelled the networking class I was going to do yesterday and created an APA review lesson. I drilled down to all the areas of citing and referencing in which students were struggling and created a document addressing these weak points. In three pages, I addressed all the elements of citing and referencing that students would probably use in college and provided some basic rules to guide them.

I kept this as a handout for yesterday’s class. Then I divided this handout into six sections and created a fresh document for each section. Each section became an assignment for a class team. I put four copies of each assignment in an envelope with a number on it. They had to do a five-minute lesson on that section and provide examples and rules. They had 30 minutes to prepare and could use flip-chart paper, the blackboard or the overhead projector. I developed a simple assessment tool for them to grade each team as it presented: beside each team number, students wrote on a scrap piece of paper
• Effort /5
• Informative /5
• Accurate /5

For some reason, only nine of the 26 students in my first-year marketing communications class attended end-of-semester yesterday’s lesson. I was told they had a lot of deadlines and that many figured they didn’t need this class. It would be their loss as probably only 25% of the class has nailed down the basics of APA. And, of those, only about four of them really get it.

The students dove on this assignment and worked diligently. They were absolutely engaged in their work and were actually enjoying APA! Yes, enjoying APA study! Who would have thought, eh? Anyhow, all six groups delivered competent presentations that enlightened their classmates.

At the end of the lesson, one student said the words that are music to every teacher’s ears: “Boy, am I ever glad I made this class.”

Let me know if you’d like a copy of the exercise and APA document. I’m happy to share.

Thanks, Elizabeth!

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About teachingteacher

Business communications instructor, journalist, corporate communications writer and media trainer ... and Masters Candidate M.Ad.Ed.
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One Response to Slaying the APA dragon with group work

  1. Christina Decarie says:

    I am *so* stealing this from you!

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