Why learning APA style is useful for students – a reply to Richard Morey

In his Mindwise blog post, Richard Morey argues that learning APA style is a waste of time. He argues that format and style of documents should be done by computer software, as we no longer live in 1950 but in the 21st century.

“Does this mean that we can remove learning APA style from our curriculum? Let me explain why I think the answer is ‘no’.”

First of all, learning a formatting style serves an educational purpose for students. By learning and practicing a specific format, the students learn that guidelines should be consulted when writing a report. I call it ‘a specific format’ because it does not per definition have to be the APA format. For references, various different styles are available. However, in Psychology, the APA format is the most widely used style for references and the majority of Psychology journals also require APA style for manuscripts. It is therefore a straightforward choice to include the APA style in our curriculum.

Should kids not learn arithmetics because calculators exist?

But why is it important that students learn and practice a specific format if software can do it for them? In my view this argument is like claiming that kids don’t need to learn arithmetic because calculators exist. Why don’t we give all first graders a calculator? Problem solved, teachers can go home. Doesn’t this sound ridiculous? Obviously, for kids it is important to understand the numbers and their logic to get a deep understanding of the matter. Similarly, learning and practicing a specific format style teaches students the elements of a style and their logic. For example, it fosters knowledge on which parts of a reference identify which type of information, how a reference to a book can be distinguished from a reference to a journal article, where to place a reference in the text, how to effectively find information in an article, and so on. For graduated researchers this knowledge may be more than obvious, but for first-year psychology students who have just left high school it is just not.

Of course, once this knowledge and skills are established, there is nothing wrong with using computer software to format your paper. I use this software myself and the psychology library even organizes regular courses for students on how to use reference managing software (see My University, search for “RefWorks”). I encourage my Bachelor thesis students to follow these workshops.

APA style is much more than a formatting style

Until now I have only talked about the format of references and text, however the APA style is much more than just text formatting. Although it started out as a simple set of style rules in 1929 (Sigal & Pettit, 2012), it can now be regarded as “an authoritative source on all aspects of scholarly writing, from the ethics of duplicate publication to the word choice that best reduces bias in language” (p. 3, American Psychological Association, 2009). It thus provides guidance on ethics and avoiding bias in publishing, manuscript structure and content, clear and concise writing, writing style, displaying results, reference citation, and the publication process. The aim of these guidelines is to standardize science communication and increase trust in the reliability of publications among professionals. Embedding APA style in the curriculum guides students in developing an ethical conscious, a critical attitude and an academic writing style.

The downside of such guidelines is that it restricts researchers in their format and personal style, and that is exactly what bothers some researchers. They think the guidelines propose a too stringent structure. This would stifle the researcher’s creativity and engagement in content, make them “automata” checking off requirements, and this would cause teaching to be obsessed with citation style. I wonder what alternatives these sceptics would prefer. They would not want to be a journal editor themselves when no guidelines would be available. In the early days of psychology, when no guidelines were available, editors had a tough job with information overload in articles that were often verbose and mediocre (Sigal & Pettit, 2012). Furthermore, I doubt whether the sceptics are truly “APA-free”, even if they do not own an APA manual like Richard , because APA style is so hard-wired in psychological communications. I would of course be happy to hear of less stringent alternatives to the APA manual. Wikipedia tells me about other style guides, such as CMOS, Turabian, AMA, and CSE, but perhaps the sceptics can tell me more about them based on more reliable sources (citations in APA style please ;-).

APA style references (formatted by hand)

American Psychological Association (2010). Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (6th ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Sigal, M. J. & Pettit, M. (2012). Information overload, professionalization, and the origins of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association. Review of General Psychology, 16 (4), 357-363. doi:10.1037/a0028531

Wikipedia authors (2014). Style guide. Wikipedia – The free encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Style_guide


NOTE: Image by Abhi Sharma, licenced under CC BY 2.0

Dr. Yvonne Groen (she/her) is a bio/neuropsychologist with a clinical interest. She focuses on cognitive and emotional difficulties in people with the developmental disorders Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Specific areas of her studies are: social cognition and social skills, school neuropsychology, reward sensitivity and motivation.


Recent publications

Fuermaier, A. B. M., Groen, Y., Tucha, L., Weisbrod, M., Aschenbrenner, S., & Tucha, O. (2019). Everyday Life Attention Scale (ELAS): Normative data of n = 1,874 Dutch participants. Applied Neuropsychology. Adult. Doi:10.1080/23279095.2019.1605994

Sluiter, M. N., Groen, Y., de Jonge, P., & Tucha, O. (2019). Exploring neuropsychological effects of a self-monitoring intervention for ADHD-symptoms in school. Applied neuropsychology. Child. https://doi.org/10.1080/21622965.2019.1575218

Groen, Y., Fuermaier, A.B.M., Tucha, L., Weisbrod, M., Aschenbrenner, S., & Tucha, O. (2019): A situation-specific approach to measure attention in adults with ADHD: The everyday life attention scale (ELAS), Applied Neuropsychology: Adult, 26(5), 411-440. DOI 10.1080/23279095.2018.1437730

Groen, Y., Fuermaier, A.B.M., Tucha, L., Koerts, J., Tucha, O. (2018). How predictive are sex and empathizing–systemizing cognitive style for entry into the academic areas of social or physical sciences? Cognitive Processing, 19, 95–106. Doi:10.1007/s10339-017-0848-z

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  • Frank Gootjes May 16, 2014  

    I believe “Review of General Psychology” is a periodical, isn’t it? “Review of General Psychology, 16…” should be italicized then!

  • Yvonne Groen May 16, 2014  

    Frank: You are definitely ready to use Zotero or any other reference management program!

  • Tassos Sarampalis May 16, 2014  

    And we’re missing the hanging indent, it’s true, Frank. But we’re not using APA style on mindwise 😉

  • Casper Albers May 16, 2014  

    I agree that from a didactic perspective, it can be useful to teach some automated systems, even when you don’t use them. Learning to think in terms of automated systems is a valuable asset. However, I tend to agree with Richard for most parts. Especially those of us who are working on the crossroads between psychology and some other discipline (biology, medicine, economy, mathematics, etc.) are even hindered by too much APA-thinking. None of my publications (except for some where I just did the stats part for psychology colleagues) had the sections called “Introduction”, “Methods”, “Results” and “Discussion”. During their bachelor, we train our students so hard in thinking APA-style, it actually is taking those of us that are on such crossroads time to have them unlearn this in the master phase once they have to read or write papers that are not 100% psychology. In a scientific world where the focus slowly moves from all the classical disciplines to a wide variety of emerging cross-disciplinary areas, the need for focussing solely on APA-style diminishes.

  • Christian Hummeluhr May 16, 2014  

    The matter of APA style is basically identical to the matter of statistics in dr. Wagenmaker’s recent blog post here: we teach formatting in what he called cookbook-style on Mindwise, and as Casper Albers points out, this can be problematic once you go beyond the kitchen that cookbook was designed for. In all of my classes, I have not once encountered an attempt to explain the principles of APA style, if any such exist–learning APA style has taught me a great deal about following the particular rules of APA style that were in force when I took those classes, and very little about why those rules exist or what concrete purpose they serve.

    For both statistics and APA style, the problem is the cookbook approach, not the content. As I wrote on dr. Morey’s blog entry, students need to be taught both how to operate in their domain as it actually exists (learn APA style/frequentism) and how to conduct a principled evaluation of how optimal the domain structure is (the degree to which APA style is effective at what it does). We need to learn both of these, not one or the other. It is similar for statistics: students do in fact need to learn the methods that are actually used in psychological research, but they also need to be able to conduct a principled evaluation of whether those methods are effective at what they’re supposed to do. One or the other is not sufficient.

  • Yavor Ivanov June 1, 2014  

    Learning APA style nowadays is obligatory for Psychology students such as myself. I will not go into the topic of why having a set of common guidelines is beneficial for the communication of knowledge on a global scale, as I think this is clear for everyone who has ever put some thought into it. What I disagree with is the way it is presented to us. What is more important- knowing exactly which word to format in italics, or properly understanding the concept you are writing about? Much like calculators speed up the process of doing arithmetics, software such as Zotero aids psychologists by letting them skip the time-consuming and possibly distracting (especially for beginners) process of manual APA formatting.

    Allowing students to use and master such software as soon as possible is, in my opinion, a good idea. An emphasis should be made on the notion that students do need to learn what APA style represents and how it should properly be used. However, this knowledge, especially when presented properly, can be gained very quickly. I think that providing students the ability to easily implement APA style into their own work once they have understood the reasoning behind the guidelines could prove to be very beneficial for them.

    One thing I have noticed is that a lot of my fellow students feel intimidated by the APA style. I think that, at least in the courses that introduce us to it, it is more or less presented as being the ultimate force of reason and structure, with little to no mention of its use in scientific writing in general. Getting students familiar with software such as Zotero early on could help them feel less intimidated by all the guidelines they have to keep track of when writing their papers. I think this will allow a lot of them to show greater interest in the actual topic of discussion and give them more time and energy to put into internalizing and critically assessing key aspects of psychological research such as statistics, research methodology etc.

  • Yvonne Groen June 2, 2014  

    Dear Yavor, thank you for your opinion. I agree with you that APA style should not be forced upon students nor upon researchers. Indeed this awakens “the pirate” in us. Instead it would be a good idea to make the use of APA style a discussion point in the courses. This will create awareness of the sense of these guidelines, as you point out in your first paragraph.
    As you would have expected, I still disagree that students should immediately make use of reference manager programs for editing their references. In this way they will learn how to check their references later on, when they do make use of these programs. However, I found out that my first-year students create APA-style formatted reference by means of the ‘cite’ button in PsycInfo… Well, at least they recognize the style as being APA.

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