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Should Psychology Students Always Write in APA Style?

Why I’ve loosened up on APA Style, especially for certain types of writing.

Key points

  • Writing is one of the most important educational activities for undergraduate students.
  • APA Style is the discipline's vernacular, so students—especially psychology majors—should learn it.
  • Using APA Style for writing on all psychological topics, particularly reflective papers, is not necessary.

As the fall semester is beginning its descent to the fast-approaching holidays, I am mindful that slews of papers will soon make their way to me for grading. Reflecting on these writing assignments, I am mindful of the fact that I don’t assign APA Style writing quite the way I did in the past, early on in my teaching career. Am I just older and more experienced as an educator—or wiser? Or, have I strayed, as it were, from the one true academic faith (at least in psychology)?

When I began teaching three decades ago, APA Style—or American Psychological Association Writing Style (as outlined in the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association—now in its seventh edition) was required for practically every paper I assigned. The logic was that students should become familiar with the discipline’s writing style. And, at the time, I believed that the best way to learn it was to use it on all papers students wrote after they had completed the required research methods course where it was taught (late in their first year or during their second year of college).

Why require APA style? Well, it’s great preparation for graduate study in psychology (where it is assumed you know it and can produce it). As a writing style, it serves as a way not only to express ideas in the discipline but to “pitch them” to critical analysis by others. Some researchers have suggested that as a form of pedagogy, it also represents a way for students (and professional and academic psychologists) to develop helpful habits of mind. And, finally, the style imposes a framework for how arguments, ideas, hypotheses, observations, and results are presented—so its clarity also makes it readily grade-able (e.g., “Is there a title page? What about an Abstract and keywords?” and so on).

As the years passed, however, I began to wonder whether it was really necessary to expect all papers—including reflective ones—to be written in APA style. So, I started by dropping the Abstract and keywords, as well as the organizing headings of Method and Results. In other words, the paper had a title page, some introduction and literature review, and then a Discussion or concluding section with a list of References to round out the work.

Still later—for thought or opinion papers—I indicated that really only presenting any readings used to form arguments need to be cited using APA style (i.e., author or authors’ last name(s) and date of publication within the body of the paper and then the APA Style reference(s) on the Reference page(s). That’s where I am more or less today—more about writing but more informal about formatting requirements. Unless I ask students to write a more formal paper, such as a literature review, or if they do an experiment or other sort of study, I don’t expect or assign APA Style (but I tell students they are free to do so if they wish). When I do assign APA Style, I expect all parts of APA Style to be present, including a Title page and an Abstract page.

What’s the upshot: Do I still think APA Style is important? Yes, absolutely—and that psychology majors need to not only be exposed to it but to learn its virtues and logic. But—and this is an important but—relatively few students will go on to do graduate student in psychology or the related fields that rely on APA Style. In other words, it is no longer critical (if it ever was) for students to use in all psychology classes and on all assignments.

APA Style has its place—an important place—but there is more to learning to think critically and scientifically than the structure that is provided by the Publication Manual. Indeed, whether the writing done is based on APA Style or not, the working principle should be that the more writing students do (and the more ways to write and to do different types of writing), the better.