Thursday, June 14, 2012

Documenting Dilemma- APA vs. MLA

APA or MLA...that is the question! or is it? 

When writing the STEM Student Research Handbook, I did a lot of research to determine what style of documentation I would be promoting in my book, for high school researchers.  When I received feedback from the reviewers, they questioned my use of MLA. But I stood my ground and defended my use of MLA with high school students.  

I settled on MLA for several reasons:

  1. My class was often the students' first exposure to ANY type of parenthetical documentation, and MLA is simpler to learn. 
  2. I wanted to support my English department, who teaches MLA documentation in students' senior year (I know-I know, they shouldn't wait that long!)
  3. While many think APA is the scientific documentation style, its not. Its the education style. Scientific journals (not science education), do not usually ask for APA, but their own version of an existing style. Fact of the matter is, before scientists submit an article to a journal, they must determine the style the journal wants. So for me, the extra work it takes to teach APA, was not worth it. 
  4. Its the concept of documentation that is important, not the style. I cannot stress this enough. Using parenthetical citations is important for ideas, not just quotes. Students need to understand that citations do not show weakness in writing, but strength. Students must learn to take information from others, filter it through their own lens, synthesize concepts, and then reframe the information in context of their own research. That's a lot for young researchers to do! Using citations make your writing credible, not less. This is NOT how students first view documentation.
  5. Programs like EndNote make changing from one documentation style to another very simple. Again, it reminds us, that it is the notetaking skill that is  important, not the documentation style. Students new to researching need support from teachers in ALL of their classes to find a note taking style that works for them. Because what really matters, is that when it comes time to write the paper, that a student can easily determine which information they got from which source. (I love EndNote for this purpose!) 
  6. Once students understand the concept of documentation, taking what they have learned about MLA and applying it to any other method documentation style their professors ask of them in college, is not a big step!       

I agree with those who say students at the upper levels should be learning that different disciplines have different needs. However, If teachers within the early high school grades could all be consistent in the style they teach, students would become proficient at documenting, and the focus could be on how they keep track of what they read, what they are writing, and not so much how it is documented. However, I believe is it important to show students APA, and to have frank discussions the various documentation styles used in different disciplines. And we can't forget, that students are being exposed to all sorts of documentation styles in the primary resources they are reading for their projects!  These scientific journals expose students to a variety of documentation styles. Again, the focus for their own writing is on consistency and accuracy in the credit they give, not on how that credit is documented.   

My former students have told me, the research skills they learned helped them in college no matter what major they declared. Many of my students go into the humanities, social science, or otherwise.  Its knowing HOW to dig for credible resources, HOW to take notes, WHEN to use citations, and then matching those citations properly in a reference list! This is what will benefit students most! 


  1. I wrote a long response and lost it to the internet poltergeist. Concise if probably the better version anyway.
    I agree that MLA is the best for the first form of citing, but all the engineering research I have been involved in or seen was done with APA citation. The type of data used in engineering and math applications is different than the data used in humanities. The more specific material is more easily read and understood with APA formatting. Our students begin with MLA in Language arts and Soc Studies, in Middle school. I teach APA starting in 7th grade, when they take their first high school level courses, refining as we go through engineering and science courses. They use MLA for their arts and humanities courses. I teach in a Chartered school for math, science, and design. Our students have their own research to document for junior/senior year, so need to be comfortable with APA before that.

    1. Dawn, Thanks for your post. I envy your position. It sounds like your district has a systematic method of introducing the idea of documenting. This, unfortunately has not been my experience. If I were in your position, I would be teaching APA as well. Are you in communication with the high schools that have the privilege of receiving your students? Do they also teach/expect APA?

      What about others? What are you middle school and high schools using?

    2. Sorry for the delay in response. Our school offers grades 6-12. We start high school credit courses in 7th grade. Minimum state requirements for graduation can be finished by end of 10th grade (except for English Language Arts in most cases), and the final two years are for specializing, internships, and research. We are a charter school, so one of a kind here.

  2. Have you used EasyBib( This does not do everything that End Note seems to do, but is pretty inexpensive, web-based, and (I think) keeps up to date editions of the various formats.


I love comments! Would love to know you were here! :)