It’s really easy to see how students can become frustrated and confused with the different documentation styles. I, for one, had such a love for MLA from my undergraduate degree (English Literature) that I tried to ask my professor if I could use MLA instead of APA once I got to graduate school. (He said no!) What I didn’t realize is that MLA made sense for the literary analysis essay I wrote in undergrad, but wouldn’t make any sense in my doctoral classes for my Ph.D.
This is because each of the documentation styles was created for the specific writing tasks of the discipline. Sure there are subtle differences that seem like nitpicking. Still, at their core, you can find practical and logical reasons for the main differences. Once I knew why the difference styles existed, I had a much better grasp on how documentation works for different tasks.
Then, I figured I should share this information with my students too! These explanations really help them understand the reasoning behind my classroom choices. Also, it helps them understand why they might be using different styles in their other classes. Though there are many differences between the documentation styles that I don’t touch on (paper formatting for example), I focus on the writing tasks that are most relevant to students. You may want to check out my article about how I teach documentation styles to begin.
I hope this article helps you make informed choices for your classes. As well as give you a way to teach students the differences as well.
Modern Language Association (MLA)
Let’s start with MLA since it’s the English teacher’s favorite. MLA is designed for use in humanities courses, like English, to document original literary and philosophical works in literary analysis style essays. When writing a literary analysis essay, for example, the original wording of the author is unique and special, an art form some would say; it’s a work of literature, afterall! In order to preserve the poet’s original words, MLA uses the author’s last name and the page number. This makes it easy for the reader of a literary analysis essay to look up the original source.
I also want to note that the year doesn’t matter here, which is why it doesn’t show up in an MLA citation. Here’s an example from the last line of The Great Gatsby, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past” (Fitzgerald 138). Naturally, this line is so poetic, so beautiful, that I quote it, rather than paraphrase. Next, the citation includes F. Scott Fitzgerald’s last name and the page number so I can go to the book and read the last line of the work in context. Does it matter when the book was written? No, certainly not! It’s a work of art and the date doesn’t matter in this context. Now, let’s contrast this to APA.
American Psychological Association (APA)
In an APA citation, you include the author(s)’ last names and the year, and you’re only required to include the page if it’s a direct quotation. APA is a documentation style that was created for documenting research in the social sciences. Think education, psychology, sociology, economics, and criminology to name a few. Research in these fields are usually documenting current trends and research in the field. Therefore, the year matters.
For instance, if I’m writing an argumentative essay on the value of remote learning in education, my resources better not be dated any later than 2020! A lot has changed with remote learning since the Covid-19 pandemic; therefore, anything before 2020 is irrelevant to an argument about remote learning today! In addition, most of what I would be citing in this essay would be research findings, in other words not poetic language. In fact, a lot of what I write will be paraphrases of the research findings from the studies I’m including. The specific words of the researchers don’t matter as much as their findings. Therefore, page numbers are only required for direct quotations.
Chicago and Turabian were designed for history, the fine arts, and business. (Turabian is a simplified version of Chicago used for works not meant for publication. This would be appropriate for a high school history class, for example.) This one is easy to explain to students because it stands out for its use of footnotes. The footnotes, indicated with a simple superscript number, are designed to cite the source without interrupting the flow while reading with a long citation, like you have in APA and MLA. The reader, if interested, can still find the source, but they won’t be distracted by the citation while reading. This helps the reader focus on the argument, rather than the source.
American Medical Association (AMA)
Your students are very unlikely to use this documentation style in middle or high school. Still, I use it to drive home the point about why we use different documentation styles. Not to mention, some of your students who are going to pursue a career in medicine may encounter it in graduate school. AMA is designed specifically for medical research. As you can imagine, medical research is the most rigorous type of research. Therefore, they have a database of numbered journals that researchers cite and consequently number in their bibliographies.
Putting It Into Pratice
After reviewing this information with students, I use a digital breakout/escape room activity to challenge students to learn how to access basic information for citations and bibliographies and apply it to academic tasks. This is my favorite way to create an active learning opportunity for students to work with these documentation styles. Click below to download your free copy!
These digital breakouts include MLA or APA citation and bibliography-creation tasks that students will be challenged to complete. As they go, they’ll enter their responses into a self-assessing Google Form that will also reveal the next task when students complete the first one correctly. This means you’ll be freed up to encourage, assist, and assess!
If you’re interested in more information on teaching writing, download my free writing guide: