Micro-failures are great ways for students to learn: citations can be those failures

It seems like students these days are afraid of failing. I’m not talking about failing an entire course, I’m talking about what I call micro-failures, the biggest micro-failure fear I see from students is doing citations incorrectly. I’ve written about failure before, we need to be accepting of failure. If you don’t fail, you’ll never know how to deal with it when you inevitably fail sometime in your life.

Seth Godin recently wrote a short blog called But how will it fail? In that post he suggests that the wrong answer isn’t “it won’t” but instead, he suggests everything will fail, at some point. I’ve long thought we need to build failure into our processes. Godin says “If you buy a piece of tech, it will break”. The same is true with countless things in life.

At the Research Help Desk one of the questions I get asked quite often is “how to properly cite in APA format?”. These kinds of interactions aren’t uncommon, “can you verify that I did these correctly?” or “my professor said they are checking every single comma in our citations”.

Maybe this is because higher education has put the fear of god in students. EVERY COMMA NEEDS TO BE EXACTLY RIGHT. Please, why are we doing this to first-year students?!

For me, citations are roadmaps to the information we use, as much as they are for attributing others ideas to them. Photo by Tamas Tuzes-Katai on Unsplash

For me, citations are a road map. Yes, we want to get into the habit of making good citations. As academics, that should be part of our role. However, first-year students are dealing with a lot of new information. Citations should not be the breaking point for student success. If a student is spending more time stressed out about their citations, than about the content in their paper, there is something wrong.

My feelings about citations

Undergraduate students are learning tons of new skills when they come to university. My teaching philosophy for first-year students is that they are learning to be academics and to find their role in scholarly conversations. They aren’t typically writing for publication, so why do we treat citations as such?

For me, citations are a road map. As long as they give me the information I need to find what resource the student has used, I’m good with that. I might correct a very bad citation but I wouldn’t take that away from their final grade.

The test for me is that students ARE attributing their ideas to others, this is the foundation of academic integrity. If I have the information to find where they got their information, that’s good enough for me.

How I’d handle citations

I would incentivize citations, awarding bonus marks for good citations.

The citations would have their own rubric and would count toward a bonus percentage of a paper, say 5%. If you have good citations and follow them to the letter, I’ll throw 5% onto your paper. Do you have bad citations but you still attribute? Maybe you get 1-3% on your final grade. No citations? Well, that’s an academic integrity violation. That’s bad.

Here is a quick rubric I put together. 

Quick rubric for citations


We need to start moving away from citations as a punishing exercise in academics. First-year students, in my opinion, should be more focused on synthesizing the content they are reading. This can be done through reflective practices such as blogs and more traditionally literature reviews. Blogs are a professional interest of mine that I hope to explore more in the future but are far outside the scope of this post.

Header photo by T.H. Chia on Unsplash

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