Citation Makers – Should the Students Cite by Hand, or is Technology Better?

In a recent discussion in a Facebook Group, a teacher asked “The teachers in my new English department are completely against online citation makers. They feel that they (the websites) occasionally make errors and kids should learn all the commas, semi-colons, etc. of typing their own citations. I respectfully disagree and believe the most important skills are the importance of making citations at all and avoiding plagiarism, and where to find all the information needed for a good citation. Of course they need to proofread anything made automatically–that’s a given. What are your thoughts?”


I know that I never would have made it through grad school without my 6th Edition APA Publication Manual (and not the Kindle version – I needed to mark it all up!), APA: The Easy Way! [Updated for APA 6th Edition], and Completing Your Qualitative Dissertation: A Roadmap From Beginning to End. I needed those books to physically flip through and write in, in order know I had cited correctly. I also used The University of Akron’s provided literature citation tool, “RefWorks,” until the University changed it to a paid resource. After a lot of searching, I found Zotero, which was a free service to collect, cite, collaborate, and share citations. So, two things – I needed to know HOW to cite properly, and I needed a way to collect and organize my citations. Knowledge, and technology.
Here is my response to the Facebook post:

“I just completed my doctorate in Curriculum and Instruction, and I’m the Tech Integration Specialist for my district. I used Zotero for my dissertation, and I could not have survived without it. It had a plugin for Word, so that my references stayed up to date automatically, and in APA format. I read over 1200 journal articles, countless books, and so many webpages, it was unbelievable. But when I completed my dissertation, I used only 305 references. Without Zotero to organize, I would have wasted so much time. 


But in the end, I HAD TO understand APA format, and its conventions. I had to know WHY APA was so strict in every comma, period, and italics. And it’s because you as the author have to be able to explain to the reader of your writing where each idea comes from. It’s vital that the reader can follow the progression of your ideas, and find the original pieces of research. You have to give original authors their credit.


So in teaching students how to cite, it’s important that they understand HOW, but also why. And I’m sure you all convey that information well to your students. After they “get it,” letting them use a citation manager is smart. When they get to college, they should begin using Zotero or Mendelay or EndNote from the beginning, to track ideas and articles. It’s the foundation of scholarly thinking, and it’s important to those going on to grad school. I wish I had known about Zotero from the beginning of my PhD program!


Technology is a god-send, but only after you understand the concepts and how they work.”

There is definitely something to say for the ELA teacher going through the process of  practicing citations and writing the essays. APA is not a “one-and-done” process, that can immediately be replaced by technology. I find it similar to a calculator. In math, students have to understand the concepts, the skills that it takes to do the problems, and then eventually they can move to calculator work. But if you skip the step of learning how to write a citation or do a math problem without the technology, students have no idea if they are correct. And we all know what a nightmare “plug-and-chug” can be. Wasting time doing EVERY citation or problem by hand is silly, but relying on technology to do something you don’t understand is dangerous.


Technology is here to stay, and teachers would be remiss to think that students WON’T use technology if we tell them not to. But teachers must be the ambassadors of responsible technology use, and reminding students that technology is not infallible. In the end, I don’t even know if my dissertation committee knew that I used a citation manager, because most of them had earned their own degrees before that type of technology was available. And many ELA or English/Writing teachers grew up before citation managers and technology was available.  Keeping our students tethered to our way of doing things has some merit, but in some ways is futile – so ask yourself “What will serve my students the best way as they move forward through their college and career pathways? The way I learned to do it? Or using technology? Or a little bit of both?”
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