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Building Citation Skills Using Instagram

March 12, 2020

I know I can’t be the only one who has had a hard time getting students to reach their “a-ha!” moment with citations. The undergraduate population at my campus, at large, has a vague understanding that “not citing is bad” but they’re not quite sure why, other than the inevitable “points off.” They know that such things as MLA and APA exist, and some even know about Chicago style (so scary), and they might even realize that different types of sources require different formats of reference entries, but the majority of undergraduate students I have worked with do not have a solid understanding of the parts of a citation or how to create a reference entry without using EasyBib, Zotero, or another web-based citation builder. 

Working with a class in fall 2019, I realized that students couldn’t always identify a title of a newspaper article, had a hard time finding page numbers and dates in magazines, and did not understand the concept of the “source,” or what’s now sometimes called the “container.” This class required only popular sources, no scholarly materials, so students weren’t able to select the magic cite button in the database. When I brought physical copies of newspapers and magazines to class to practice their APA style citations, they struggled. When I gave them the format to create the citation, they struggled. These students, who ranged from freshmen to seniors in this gen-ed course, failed to find the core elements needed to cite a source. 

This spring, working with the same instructor, we decided to break things down to a basic level. What are the key pieces of a citation? What are the core elements students need to be able to identify? We narrowed it down to five questions, which align to the APA’s Basic Principles of Reference List Entries with one addition: where can this be located (URL or issue, volume and page numbers). This course has very specific requirements in that the instructor gives the students the name of a popular publication they must use to find a source, weekly, but we weren’t confident that they would be able to identify these five key elements to a citation, even with the name of the source provided. 

To that end, we practiced finding the core elements of a citation and creating an APA style with an Instagram post. I pulled an image from @nationalparkservice and asked the class to find 

1) who posted or created this image? 

2) when was it posted? 

3) what is the title? 

4) what platform is it posted on? 

5) where can you find the URL for this post? 

I had hoped that since Instagram is a platform that students use often, they’d more readily be able to locate this information than they were using a newspaper or a magazine. My hunch was correct. The classes, as a whole, stumbled a bit on how to find the URL for the direct post, and a few weren’t sure what the difference was between the caption and the location tag, but overall students successfully identified the key elements of a citation from an Instagram post. 

This opened up a broader conversation about what types of materials have rules for citations, and students were shocked to learn that there were models for citing Twitter posts and comments, as well as YouTube videos and podcasts. The initial results were highly successful, as most students correctly built a citation for their first assignment. 


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