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Students often struggle with writing essays. Some have difficulty with structure. Others dread dealing with APA formatting. I teach everything from bachelor-level to doctoral-level courses. The following contains some helpful writing tips that I have found may make writing essays a little easier.
Citations and References:
Many of the courses I teach require that students master the use of citations and references. I have found that students often become confused about how to include these. One common mistake that students make is to include a reference page without including any citations. That is not correct. The problem with that is there is no way to determine what part, if any, of the paper was paraphrased or cited from that source. Students sometimes think that listing a reference is a way to show that they used that information for the paper. However, there is more that must be done than simply including the source on the reference page. There must also be citations. Citations may be paraphrased or directly quoted. If there is a reference, there must be at least one corresponding citation.
- A paraphrased citation looks something like this: Hamilton (2014) explained the importance of citations.
Students may also want to include directly quoted material. I teach some courses where I allow this and other courses where I only allow paraphrased citations.
- If directly quoted citations are allowed, they look something like this: “Citations may be paraphrased or directly quoted” (Hamilton, 2014, p. 1).
I prefer that my students paraphrase their citations. This may help demonstrate that they understand the content. However, it is important that if any information is paraphrased or quoted directly from a source, the author and year information must be included (list n.d. if no date is listed). There may be specific guidelines listed in the APA manual for listing page numbers and other identifying information. Students should be aware of the following:
- Do not list citations without references.
- Do not list references without citations.
- Do not list the author and year information at the end of the paragraph and assume it covers the entire paragraph of content. Author and year information must be included for any paraphrased sentence or directly quoted block of content.
- Citations and references must be in APA format (for most courses). Do not include footnotes if APA is required.
- Do not number the references; list them in APA format.
- Alphabetize references in APA format.
- Long direct quotes have unique indentation requirements. I recommend avoid any long direct quotes. They are usually used by students to fill up space. Professors may not like that.
- Be sure the alignment of references is correct on the reference page. The first line of each source should be at the left margin and every line after that indented ½ inch. See APA guidelines for help.
- Use peer-reviewed scholarly journals for citing.
- Double-check with the Owl Purdue Writing Lab for help with how to cite unusual sources.
It may be a challenge for students to get into the habit of citing correctly. There are some sources like Perrla that may help.
Use of Appropriate Sources:
Another common citing mistake is to use less-than-scholarly sources. Although I enjoy writing blogs and doing research, I do not recommend that students use this or any other similar site as a source in their research papers. Blogs may sometimes contain news-worthy information. However, usually they contain opinion and other information that has not been peer-reviewed.
There are many sites that students use that are not considered appropriate sources for research. Blogs are just one of them. The following list contains some sources that students should not use:
- Blogs – Blogs are meant for things other than research. They may be helpful in giving insight into how to do things. They may be fun to read in terms of content. However, students need to realize that some blogs may not contain accurate information.
- Wikipedia – Wikipedia is a common student favorite. It contains some very good information. However, the content is written on a wiki. A wiki allows more than one person to add or change information. Any wiki should not be used as a source for citing. Wikipedia may have some very good sources listed at the bottom of the page. If students start at Wikipedia to research a topic, they could look at the bottom to find the original source of information. At that point, students can search their school’s library for that source to see if it comes up under peer-reviewed scholarly sources.
- eHow, Quora, or other Q&A Sites – There are plenty of Q&A sites that allow people to answer questions on the Internet. Just because there is an answer on these sites, does not mean that the answer is correct or has been reviewed by anyone. Think of these sites as you would a blog. They may or may not contain accurate information. Therefore, they should not be used to cite.
- Dictionary – This is a source students tend to like to cite. Although it is accurate and will give a good definition, some professors look at this as a kind of “cop out” source. It is easy to look up a definition in the dictionary. It is better to show scholarly research that explains the subject in more detail.
- Books – Some books should not be used as sources. If there is a textbook assigned to the course, it is usually a good source to cite. However, not all books are considered “scholarly”. It is best to stick to peer-reviewed journals if there is any doubt.
Some professors will allow just about any source for citations. Others are extremely picky. To be safe, it is a good idea to get in the habit of using only peer-reviewed scholarly sources. For more information, check out: What is a Peer-Reviewed Journal.
Schools usually have an online library where students can find appropriate sources. Near the search bar, there may be a box that can be checked to ensure that the search only delivers peer-reviewed scholarly sources. The wise students stick to the school’s library for research. It is as easy to search as Google and the chances of coming up with proper research are enhanced.
Other Common Mistakes:
I notice that many students make similar mistakes. I make comments on their papers to address these issues. Many of them disregard my comments and continue to submit the papers with the same mistakes. I thought it might be helpful to create a checklist of some of the most common mistakes that I see and give some guidelines as how to correct them.
- Tense – Students should stick to third person rather than first or second person unless the paper is specifically about them. In this blog, I write in first person. I use words like I, me, us, and we. Those are fine in this type of setting. In undergraduate and graduate courses, students must be able to write as if they are an observer. It is also incorrect to write in second person. Second person includes words like you and your. Students must learn how to write in third person. Do not write a paper that begins with something like: I chose to write about this because blah blah blah. There is no need to mention the author (aka the student). Just write about the topic.
- Paragraph/Overall Structure – I often include a link in class that directs student to this Youtube Video that explains how to write a well-constructed paper. It is important not to have an overly long or overly short paragraph. I have seen students submit entire papers that included only one paragraph. I prefer to see paragraphs include around 4-8 sentences. If citing is required, it is better to begin a paragraph with a statement and then follow it with citations. The citations are there to support any points. Students must make their points before they can support them. Students often forget to set up their papers to include an introduction, body and conclusion. I recommend watching the Youtube video for help with this and many other structural and writing issues.
- Microsoft Word Issues – Students often have difficulty with formatting issues. I have created the following videos that may be helpful with some of these problems: How to Remove Extra Spaces from in Between Paragraphs, Working with Headers and Page Numbers, How to Change Period Spacing.
- Using Scholarly Sources – Students may have difficulty distinguishing between the kinds of sources that are allowed for citations. If students’ first inclination is to search for answers on Google or if Wikipedia is their best friend, I recommend that they check out their school’s library search engine instead.
- Font Issues – Students must be sure that their papers meet APA guidelines. The font needs to be set at 12 point. There should not be any special bold, ALL CAPS, or underlined information that does not meet these guidelines.
- Confusion Between Citations and References – I recommend reading: What is the Difference Between Citations and References. The reference page must be titled References and not Works Cited.
- Amount of Citations – Students often do not include enough citations. They must be able to demonstrate their research and back up any points. I find that many students like to write in a story-telling fashion. Others may already know information about a topic and write based on experience. It is important to cite even if you are a subject expert. Some may be tempted to cite too often. Every single sentence should not be a citation. That is called patchworking. It is important to make a point and then back it up with citations to demonstrate your research.
- Follow Rubrics and Guidelines – If there are specific requirements for the assignment, it is important that students follow the guidelines. If five pages are required, then submit at least five complete pages. The title page and reference pages do not count toward page requirements. If the professor has posted any additional requirements in class, it is important to go through that checklist to determine that all requirements have been met.
Graduate-level students may be required to have a higher level of writing expertise. These requirements may cause students to become frustrated. Some of my online students have not taken courses in a very long time. Many of them have not learned how to write properly in APA format. I have a surprisingly high number of students who have difficulty with sentence and paragraph structure. Graduate students should not use contractions. For example, words like cannot should not be written as can’t. Papers should be written in third person unless it specifically states that the assignment should be written in first person. Students should support all major points and information that is not common knowledge with peer-reviewed scholarly sources. The school’s library should be the main search source. Whenever information is not common knowledge or is paraphrased, it should be cited.
I have had some students who get annoyed when I take off points for these issues. I post my requirements on the first day of class, so that there are no excuses for not following my guidelines. However, there will always be some students who feel it is their right to write incorrectly. They may not truly understand the narrative mode issue or how to cite in APA format.
At the graduate level, it is up to students to learn these things. It is important to write in a scholarly tone. I think students should write as if their paper could be printed in a journal. It is important that students do not write in an informal tone. Some students like to insert personal anecdotes or other information that is not appropriate for the assignment or this level of work. Unless the instructor specifically states that papers may be written informally or in some other format, graduate-level students should stick to a scholarly third-person tone that is supported consistently throughout with peer-reviewed research.
There may come a time when an assigned essay involves something that the student has experienced or already has studied. For example, an assignment might be to write about a famous entrepreneur. I have many students that are fans of Steve Jobs or Oprah Winfrey. They may know everything there is to know about these people because they have followed their careers.
Many students make the mistake of writing in a storytelling-fashion, based on their own interpretation of what they think they already know. If it is a graduate-level assignment, usually citations and research are required. That means that students will need to find sources to support their writing.
I commonly I see students write something like this: I chose Oprah Winfrey because she makes me feel blah blah blah. There are several problems with this sentence. First of all, the paper should be about Oprah and not about the student. There is no need to write in first person. Unless the professor specifically stated that students should explain their feelings, the assignment should stick to what Oprah has accomplished.
Students often like to refer to their feelings in their writing. They also like to include personal anecdotes. For most of the classes that I teach, this is not appropriate.
Sometimes a student will drop me a note that states something like this: “I already know everything about this subject, so I didn’t include citations.” I understand what they mean. However, even if the student knows everything about a topic, the point of the assignment is to show what they have learned through research.
Students must get into the habit of finding solid scholarly sources to back up what they have written. Without citations, they have written opinion and not research.
There are certain expectations of higher-level students. They should be able to write in complete paragraphs that include around four to eight sentences. Students should cite consistently throughout each of those paragraphs to support major points. A strong introduction and conclusion should be included.
When students cite, it is a good idea to paraphrase those citations whenever possible. Some students try to fill space by including many long direct quotations. I have corrected papers where students had about 10% of their own information and the rest was directly quoted from another source. This is not acceptable. Some schools do not allow more than 10% directly quoted material. It is easy to copy and paste what others have written. That does not really show that the student has learned anything. It is far better to paraphrase citations to show that the information has been processed and understood.
Also check out this video for helpful tips I give my students to help them succeed in class:
The word Millennials is used to describe adults born between the years of 1980 and 2000. They are also known as Generation Y. Jean Twenge, author of Generation Me explained Millennials tend to be more self-focused and may expect to receive a lot of recognition. Sixty Minutes aired an interesting story titled The Millennials are Coming. In this show, they explained how this younger generation expects good things and expects them with little effort. I have noticed that this sense of entitlement has carried into the online classroom setting.
Most of my students are very respectful. They follow directions. They ask questions with the proper tone. However, there are a few that are more demanding. Although I have not formally studied the age group of the students who demonstrate issues with entitlement, I have noticed that my older Baby Boomer students seem to demonstrate more respect.
Some students become frustrated with expectations as they enter higher level programs. Some of my students have managed to get through their undergraduate program with poor writing skills. If I make comments about things that they need to work on for future assignments, some of them become upset or angry. It is as if they expect to receive an A with very little effort. They may make comments that express their indignation that I would even suggest that they might write “a lot” as two words, or indent a paragraph per APA guidelines. I might even receive a note from them about how other professors did not mark down for certain things.
I do not take that many points off for writing or APA-related issues. I teach business-related courses and should not have to make grammar or structure my main focus. What is interesting to me is that their anger does not seem to be about the score received as much as the fact that I have pointed out something they have done incorrectly.
Many students tell me that professors do not insert comments on their assignments. Perhaps that is why some of them react the way they do. However, it seems to me that a graduate-level student should write at a graduate level.
Based on the reaction I get from the younger students, I often wonder if some professors “let things go” in order to keep the peace. I have spoken to other professors who perform peer-reviews and deal with conflict resolution. They have told me that students will complain about many little things. If students complain, professors must respond, and then that creates more of a hassle for them.
The squeaky wheel may get the grease. If professors do not want to tell students the truth, for fear of reprimand, they may just let things slide. My concern is that younger students’ entitlement issues have made them complain too easily and kept them from developing important skills.
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- Millennials Embrace Online Education
- Millennials Unique Expectations
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Google and other search engines have changed the way people locate information. The problem is that online students think of Google as a proper tool to use to perform research for assignments. Google Scholar may provide access to some scholarly research. However, most online schools prefer that students use the school’s library search feature. It is important that students consider the reliability of the type of content that is available on traditional websites.
Pew reported that the majority of students are not able to recognize bias in online content. This has become frustrating for professors because these skills should be taught in first-year college courses. Turnitin’s white paper titled What’s Wrong with Wikipedia, reported that in over 37 million papers submitted by students, there were 156 million matches to content found from the Internet. This means that students use sites like Google Books, May Clinic, Yahoo Answers, Wikipedia, etc. These are unacceptable sources to use for college-level courses.
According to Turnitin’s research, the following problems exist with student’s research behavior:
- Problem: Students value immediacy over quality – Students use sites like Wikipedia to find quick answers. Wikipedia may offer some valuable resources at the bottom of their site to support the content. Solution: These sources are usually available through the school’s library search feature. Schools’ search engines are quite easy to use. They access some of the best material available for free. Students can easily mark a box for peer-reviewed studies. This will ensure that their research contains quality information.
- Problem: Students often use cheat sites – Students may find sites that offer to write their papers for a fee. Most of these papers are captured within Turnitin’s plagiarism detecting software. Therefore when students buy the paper and submit as their own, the software will detect it as plagiarized. Solution: The time it takes to find and buy a paper on the Internet could have been used to simply write an original paper. Nothing is gained from submitted plagiarized work. Students risk getting expelled. Most assignments are not that long or difficult. The point of writing them is to gain knowledge. Students who attend school just to obtain a piece of paper will not be prepared for the working world. They will spend money on a degree that will not help them if they have not learned the information.
- Problem: Research is not synonymous with search – Students may put a lot of faith in the information found on the Internet. Just because a site allows people to ask and answer questions, does not mean that the answers are correct. Searching for answers on the Internet does not mean that the answers are based on actual research. Solution: Using peer-reviewed sources that are available through the school’s library ensures that the information in the article has been reviewed by the author’s peers. These studies are actual research.
There are times when assignments allow for students to use websites like Apple.com, or other corporate or news sites. If this is allowed by the instructor, students must be able to recognize if the site is highly regarded. An example might be The New York Times. If students are in doubt, they should direct questions to their instructor for guidance.
HR professionals within organizations have given personality assessments to potential employees for many years. I was asked to take a personality assessment for a pharmaceutical sales job in 1987. The changes I have noticed since that time include the type and frequency of personality tests given. What also may be trending is the fact that leaders of schools have become more interested in personality assessments. In the Wall Street Journal article Business Schools Know How You Think, but How Do You Feel, author Melissa Korn explained, “Prospective MBA students need to shine by showing emotional traits like empathy, motivation, resilience, and dozens of others.” Schools may be interested in these traits because organizations value these traits. Korn also explained, “Measuring EQ-or emotional intelligence quotient-is the latest attempt by business schools to identify future stars.”
I find this trend to be particularly interesting because I teach business, I am a qualified Myers Briggs instructor, a certified EQ-i instructor, and I wrote my dissertation on the relationship between emotional intelligence and sales performance. I have also witnessed that online schools have placed more importance on personality assessments. Many of my first-year students must take a Jung-like personality test. Many of my undergraduate and graduate business students have to assess their EQ.
I think it is important for these personality preference and emotional intelligence issues to be addressed in online courses. Some of the things that may hurt a graduate’s chance of obtaining is job include having poor self-assessment skills, poor interpersonal skills, and a lack of concern for how they are perceived by others.
When I was in pharmaceutical sales, they rated us each year on our concern for impact. It was such an important part of what they believed made us successful in the field, that there were consequences to poor judgment and rude behavior. In the book, It’s Not You It’s Your Personality, there is a chapter regarding concern for impact, as well as one for Myers Briggs MBTI, Emotional Intelligence, DISC, and many other personality assessments that may help young adults in the workplace. One of the universities for which I teach requires students to read this book in a foresight course.
It is important for online students to learn about these assessments because employers use them. Some personality traits stay with us throughout our lives. The MBTI is an example of an assessment that determines preferences that may not change. This assessment may be helpful to students who are not sure about career paths. Other assessments like the EQ-i determine emotional intelligence levels. The good news about emotional intelligence is that it may be improved. Marcia Hughes has written several books about how to improve EQ in the workplace. The savvy online students will work on developing their EQ and understanding personality preferences before they graduate. By being proactive, students may have a better chance of being successful in a career that matches their personality preferences.
- Jobs and Education Choices Based on Myers Briggs
- The Emotionally Intelligent Online Student
- Schools Focusing on Career Path
- MBTI and VARK Importance to Learning
- More Education Required for Employment
- Degree Programs Based on MBTI
- It’s Not You It’s Your Personality
- How to Get a Job Based on Understanding Introverts and Extraverts
Some students like to present papers with a bit of pizzazz. Many may add pictures or charts they have found on the Internet. Unfortunately many of the things they try to incorporate into their work may create a copyright violation. The good news is that there are sites where students can find media to share that is not protected.
The Creative Commons site is a good place to go to find content. According to their site, “If you’re looking for content that you can freely and legally use, there is a giant pool of CC-licensed creativity available to you. There are hundreds of millions of works — from songs and videos to scientific and academic material — available to the public for free and legal use under the terms of our copyright licenses, with more being contributed every day.”
Some famous sites like Google, Flickr, and Wikipedia use Creative Commons to access media. Wikipedia’s Public Domain Image Resources page also provides some great links to media that is not copyright-protected. This site provides general as well as government resources.
Some students incorporate images they have found using the insert clipart function in Word. According to the Microsoft site, “The Clip Art and Media gallery provides a compilation of artwork. See the use terms for the description of permitted uses. If those terms do not meet your needs, our Clip Art partners at Office Online provide a variety of images you can license directly. Sample Art may be used for personal use only. You may not sell, lease, or distribute Sample Art, or any materials you create that use Sample images, for any commercial purposes.”
If students submit a Word document that has clip art obtained from Word, they may have questions about how to cite it in APA. According to Owl Purdue’s site it is, “unnecessary to provide citation on a document presented via the Microsoft program for stock images that a specific to that software package.”
It may be difficult to find free clip art simply by searching for it on Google. Many sites that come up offer some free clip art that is usually not that great. The better clip art usually requires a fee. I am often contacted by people about the clipart used for my online education blog. I have used a couple of sources that charge a fee, including Shutterstock and iStockPhoto. The really good pictures like these usually require a fee.
When students insert pictures that are copyright protected, professors should explain this to them. There are many students who assume they can copy and paste just about anything from the Internet into their assignments. Students may benefit from reading: How to Avoid Copyright Infringement and Copyright Fair Use and How it Works for Online Images.
As a doctoral chair, it is my responsibility to help guide students through their doctoral dissertation process. In order to receive a doctorate through online courses, there is a series of courses that students take prior to the time they begin writing the proposal for their dissertation. Each online program varies to some degree. Based on the two programs I have either taken or taught, I can say that they were pretty similar. The following is what students might expect from an online doctoral program.
Students must first complete a series of online courses that address their field of study. For example, I received a degree that is titled: Doctor of Philosophy in Business Administration with a Specialization in Management. That means that those initial courses included a specific focus on business management. Some students may combine their Master’s with their Doctorate. Assuming that students have already taken the thirty or so credits required for a Master’s degree, there may be another 10 or 15 courses required in the field of specialization. In this case, it would be to study business management. These courses are not that different from taking graduate-level classes.
After finishing those courses, students begin taking courses that are more specific to the proposal and final dissertation. It is difficult to state how many courses may be required at this point. Some students require fewer courses than others based on how much work they complete within the scheduled time for each course. I have had some students make it through the dissertation in the process by taking only three dissertation courses. Others may take a dozen or more courses to finish. It depends upon how much students have done on their own prior to beginning the doctoral courses, how quickly they work, and the type of research they do.
The steps in the doctoral process include writing the proposal (which describes how the study will be performed, aka chapters 1-3 of the final dissertation), obtaining proposal approval, doing the research, writing the final dissertation (updating Chapters 1-3 and writing Chapters 4-5), obtaining approval for the dissertation, defending the dissertation in an oral presentation, and finally having the doctoral chair, doctoral committee, and dean give a final seal of approval.
The hardest part generally seems to be writing the proposal or the first three chapters. This is difficult because students have to learn how to write in a very specific and scholarly way. There are templates that may provide helpful information regarding alignment, content requirements, and formatting. Students work very closely with their chair during this time. Students must also have at least two committee members. Some schools, like the one I attended, required an additional outside member to review the dissertation. All members of the committee must have a doctorate.
Students usually work strictly with the chair until Chapters 1-3 are ready to submit. At that point, the committee looks at the work to give input and make suggestions. After all adjustments are made, the proposal goes through several stages of approval. Students may need to submit more than once if there are changes requested. This is commonly the case. Once the proposal is approved, students can perform the study, and eventually write the last two chapters that describe the results. This final document goes through the chair and committee approval process again, and eventually must meet with the dean’s approval. The last step is for students to defend the dissertation in an oral presentation. Usually that is the easiest part of the process because students know their study inside and out by that time. It takes some students just a few years to go through the process. Others take much longer. Some never finish. It is a very difficult process. However, in the end, it is worth it.
Please review the following video and articles for help with formatting, APA, grammar and other writing issues. To return to Dr. Diane Hamilton’s blog, click here. For updates on help with writing, bookmark the following page: Dr. Diane’s Writing Help
- Checklist for Writing the Perfect College Paper
- Doctoral Dissertation: Proposal Approval Checklist
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- How to Get an A in Your College Courses
- Education and ADHD: Changing How People Learn
- Successful Students Use Plagiarism and Editing Programs
- Top 10 Most Common Writing Mistakes
- Top 100 Vocabulary Words That Adults Should Know
- Top 10 Tips for Surviving a Doctoral Dissertation
- Top 10 Sources for Help with APA 6th Edition
- New Studies Show Technology to Blame for Increase in Plagiarism
- How to Paraphrase and Avoid Using Direct Quotes
- How to write a Perfect College Paper Tutorial
- Help with removing extra spaces between paragraphs
- Help with page numbers and headers
- Example of an APA paper
- Example papers, research and documentation help
- 15 Ways to Improve Writing Skills for Students and Everyone Else
- APA Style: 5 Essential Tips for APA Style Headings
- Citing Long Quotations in APA 6th Edition
- Adding 2 Spaces After a Period to Meet APA 6th Edition Requirements
- What is the Difference Between a Citation and a Reference?
- Is Wikipedia Reliable?
- PowerPoint – Resources and Examples to Make the Perfect Presentation
- Explanation of First, Second and Third Person Writing
- Anthropomorphisms: When Not to Use Them
- Have Some Fun With Common Grammar Mistakes
- What is a Peer-Reviewed Journal?
- How to Paraphrase and Avoid Using Direct Quotes
- Top Sites to Find Statistics and Charts for Writing Articles
- Statistics Every Writer Should Know