May 2018 Site of the Month

ALA ACRL IS PRIMO logoPRIMO Site of the Month: May 2018

Basics of APA Style


Author: Lindsay O’Neill

Institution: Pollak Library at California State University Fullerton


Interviewee: Lindsay O’Neill

Interviewer: T. Eloise Stevens

Description of Project (provided by the author):

Basics of APA Style is an interactive tutorial that teaches learners how to implement APA Style using quizzes, games, and a virtual style guide. Learners have to complete an APA citation for a book, an article, and a website to complete the tutorial. It’s built in more of a game style, where learners choose how to move through, and in which order they want to complete the activities.

Q: What was the motivation for this tutorial?

A: The thing about APA Style is that no one I know really has it memorized. As a librarian and a writer, I’m constantly referring back to the OWL at Purdue and to the APA Style Guide. I can never remember what parts get italicized, how many authors you should list before you plug in “et al” instead, etc.

I think that most people tasked with writing in APA Style are constantly referring to style guides, too. So it made sense to me to construct a tutorial that supports and scaffolds this behavior. I don’t expect my learners to memorize APA Style. I do expect them to apply APA Style using whatever style guide they have at hand. And I expect them to be able to get it right for commonly created citation formats – books, articles, websites (at least a really simple website, in any case).

Of course, this tutorial is a simplified version of what we all have to do in real life – websites, for one, are difficult to cite. But, I like to think of this tutorial as a basic foundation for practicing citing, and this skill of applying APA style to cite given sources can be built upon and scaffolded later on.

This tutorial was actually years in the making. In 2015, I started building something simpler, a tutorial that asked students to identify the parts of a citation or to fill in a piece at a time by forcing them to use what they remember of APA Style, but I wasn’t enthusiastic about how effective it would be as a learning experience. It was just super boring and not true to real life. I left it for about a year and continued building my skills in Storyline by working on other projects. Eventually, I conceived of having a built-in APA style guide, and everything else started coming into place, like having optional games to practice APA skills. I spent most of 2017 building all the pieces and then bringing it together and testing it.

Q: How did you work with other librarians, faculty, students, or other stakeholders in the creation of this tutorial?

A: In late 2016, I had this idea that I wanted to build some citation-related tutorials. At that point I had an existing suite of digital badge-issuing tutorials called the Spark Tutorials (two of which are in PRIMO as well: Services & Collections and Finding Articles & Databases). At the time, the Spark Tutorials focused on an orientation to the library and to the basics of library research. I wanted to add on a citation module that taught students the whys and hows of citing and the basics of a given citation style.

I asked my colleague Jon Cornforth if he would like to work on this with me. He was very helpful in providing input and feedback on the earlier Spark Tutorials, plus he had recently created a beautiful library guide to citation styles. I started with APA because it’s the style I’m most comfortable with. Jon picked out the sources (book, article, website) that we would feature in the APA style tutorial, and he also worked with me on creating the built-in style guide. He independently created a really nice Introduction to Citations video that I intend to build into a larger citations module for the Spark Tutorials project.

Jon was also one of my first colleagues to test the Basics of APA Style tutorial. I worried a lot about the nonlinear format of the tutorial – would it make sense? Would learners understand the goal? So I tested it out on several colleagues. Jon spotted several typos and some usability issues. I had several other library colleagues test it out as well. Then, I asked a few of our student workers to try it out, and they gave some really good feedback on usability. Finally, I launched a beta version and it worked just fine – the testing paid off.

Q: Who is using this tutorial? How are they using it? Has the audience changed?

A: Good question! I launched in late 2017 as part of our Spark Tutorials, which live in our learning management system (LMS). The Spark Tutorials (which are two years old now) are much more popular in fall semester than spring. Fewer than 100 students have completed the Basics of APA tutorial in the LMS so far this spring. I also broke out the individual games and put them onto a LibGuide. I have no idea how much those are getting used.

In general, the Spark Tutorials are mostly used by freshmen – instructors have to assign them to their students. They get used by some transfer classes and graduate programs as well.

I can look up the names of the students that completed my tutorials because the LMS automatically collects this info, but I don’t have any way to know why they’re completing the tutorials, where they’re coming from, or any demographic info. This would be a future assessment project.

Q: How did you promote this tutorial to students and faculty? Has it been integrated into the curriculum in any way?

A: I haven’t really promoted this particular tutorial at all. It is now part of the Spark Tutorials, so students and faculty are discovering it there.

I’ve done some promotional efforts in the past for the Spark Tutorials in collaboration with colleagues and with Jon. The Spark Tutorials are now a required part of the First Year Experience syllabus, which is a three-unit course for freshmen (about 10% of the freshmen class are in FYE, though the campus is trying to scale this up). Jon is our current liaison to the FYE programs, so he’s doing promo work for the Spark Tutorials, and some of my other colleagues make a point of telling their faculty about the Spark Tutorials, so that’s really nice.

Q: How are you assessing this tutorial?

A: I’m not. I did a lot of testing before I officially launched it. I launched a beta version in the LMS and provided a feedback form alongside the tutorial, but students just started completing the tutorial, and no one left feedback. So, it’s just humming along. If students are able to complete it, that means they’re able to navigate through the entire thing and complete the required activities. Since the LMS does collect completion data, I could do assessment in the future, but it’s not a priority for me.

Q: You mentioned the tutorial being in beta testing a few times, when did it leave testing/when was it published?

A: There wasn’t really an official end to the beta stage. Since no one submitted the feedback form or messaged me that they were having problems, I quietly deleted the feedback form and removed the “beta” label in early 2018. I can see that it’s working since students are finishing it, so I guess that’s good enough for primetime!

Q: You used Articulate Storyline to create this tutorial, what other programs did you consider? What are the benefits of using Storyline and what are some of the drawbacks or difficulties?

A: Storyline is the best authoring tool for making fun and interactive tutorials. Adobe Captivate doesn’t have the rapid authoring capabilities like Storyline does. It just doesn’t do as much as quickly.

When it comes to asynchronous tutorials, I like to build a fully standalone learning experience. I want students to just have to log in and go from there. Using an authoring tool like Storyline makes this possible – to be fully immersed in the experience – whereas the alternative would be videos and quizzes in the LMS, which wouldn’t be as interactive, and certainly wouldn’t be immersive.

The drawback of Storyline is the price tag – an educational license is somewhere around $700. And, of course, there is a learning curve to using Storyline and to figuring out how to publish tutorials and make them work in the LMS. I’m lucky to have a license. I started learning to use authoring tools like Storyline as part of my studies for my instructional design master’s degree, and I’ve just built my skills from there.

Q: How much familiarity/expertise with Articulate would be required to build a tutorial like this? Would someone need to be an instructional designer or could a more tech-savvy librarian with little formal ID training pick it up?

A: This tutorial is incredibly complex. It’s composed of hundreds of slides, slide layers, and triggers. Here’s a screenshot of its structure to give you some idea (the question banks are not depicted, nor the triggers). I used a template from Tim Slade for the authors trivia game, and I re-used a previously built project for the VIP game, and everything else is built from scratch just for this project. The entire Storyline project is the result of probably 160 hours of work altogether. To build a tutorial like this, you have to not only be an advanced user of Articulate Storyline, you would also have to be well-versed in designing user interfaces and constructing effective learning experiences, and you’d also have to just really like working on projects like these (lots of my free time went into this). It took me a few years to get to this point.

The biggest challenge in editing a large project like this, were someone to use it as a template or want to build something similar, is creating and editing the triggers and variables. Triggers are the logic statements on each slide/slide layer that state the behavior that results from the learner’s interactions (the label “triggers” is specific to Storyline; other authoring software have different labels for the same function, e.g., Adobe Captivate calls these “conditional actions” or “advanced actions,” but they do the same thing). For instance, in the Tic Tac Toe game, I built in a large number of triggers and variables that either display the Success or Failure slides based on whether the learner answers the questions correctly, and another set of triggers brings the game to a close when the learner/computer gets three boxes in a row. It’s the triggers that enable non-linear projects like these. They can get really complex really quickly, and they’re almost always the reason for bugs in the final product. (As an example, here’s a screenshot of triggers that dictates which slide players should be directed to based on their quiz score that I developed for a game that has a leaderboard). I’ve also got some Javascript code built into a trigger for the Moodle version of this project which automatically pulls the learner’s name from Moodle, sets it as a variable, and displays it in the tutorial. It’s pretty neat.

All that said,Storyline is easy to pick up to start creating simple, linear, beautiful tutorials. You can start simply in Storyline and build your skills over time, which is what I did. (In contrast, Adobe Captivate is not easy to pick up, nor does it quickly create beautiful things!) I love Storyline and think it’s a lot of fun. You can download a free 30-day trial if you’d like to give it a shot!

Q: This tutorial has a few layers of interactivity (quizzes with time limits, building citations, consulting different references). Generally, the tutorial is modeled on a ‘real life,’ recognizable scenario. What drove your design process and the creation of the different activities?

A: My goal for this tutorial was to enable learners to find their own path to learning. If they already know APA, they can breeze through quickly and complete the tutorial. If they struggle, they can use the games to practice these concepts. If they just want to try to complete the citations again and again on their own, they can, and they’re practicing those concepts every time they try.

I really liked the idea of having a non-linear learning experience to facilitate exploration and to hopefully encourage student engagement. A linear experience would be a tutorial where you’re having the learner click Next, Next, Next (also known as a “page-turner” tutorial). By non-linear, I mean that Basics of APA Style presents learners with a virtual depiction of a desktop, and they have to figure it out from there. There is no Next button. I build in navigation controls that facilitate movement between the different parts so that the learner is never trapped anywhere – there’s always the option to leave and do something else.

I really just wanted to see what was possible with the games (they’re all broken out and playable on this LibGuide, by the way). The VIP Game was based on a Spaceshooter game I developed three years ago. I just repurposed it. The pedagogical concept behind the VIP game is that, frankly, I can never remember the order in which the volume, issue, and page of a given article is supposed to go. Then I realized that it’s VIP (Volume, Issue, Page) order, and the VIP Game lets students practice memorizing/recognizing the VIP order, and what’s supposed to be italicized and what’s not. (Fun fact: due to programming bugs in Storyline, this game is actually unwinnable. Sorry, kids.)

The Authors APA Trivia game seemed like a good way to practice basic author formatting, and I think I’ve used the same trivia game template in other tutorials. It makes you practice and learn, but it makes it a little more fun. Adding in the scoring allows learners to compete against themselves if they like, and it’s easily repeatable because it’s only 10 questions anyway.

The Reference List Tic Tac Toe was a huge challenge to program, which is probably why I did it. Honestly, it’s probably the most complex piece of the entire tutorial. Each square actually links to its own Question Bank – when you click on a square, it randomizes the questions from that given bank. You’ll never play the same game twice because the questions randomize every time for every square. Probably no one will ever notice that, but I learned so much doing it. Figuring out how to program the variables and triggers to make things happen based on whether you got the square or not was hugely complicated. I spent months just doing this game. Anyways – the pedagogical idea behind this game was to help students apply APA formatting, and again, they have the virtual style guide there to help them.

Of course, there’s much more to citing and APA style than this very basic tutorial, but it’s a good way to start practicing these concepts.

Q: How did you incorporate accessibility guidelines into this tutorial?

A: Articulate Storyline 3 has much better accessibility features than Storyline 2. I built in closed captions for the video or two that are in there. Storyline supports captions natively now, but it didn’t previously.

Q: I drank a lot of digital coffee while working through this tutorial – were there any Easter eggs I missed?

A: That’s awesome. That’s the only Easter egg that I can think of… actually – when you finish the tutorial, if you go back to the desktop I think a game controller appears that takes you to a super-secret games menu so that you can play all the games again. If, you know, you just really like games that teach you APA!

I’ve always loved putting in silly things like that.

Q: What advice do you have for others who may be seeking to add more interactivity and active learning into their tutorials?

A: First, the interactivity should have a purpose. If your learners can’t figure out what they’re supposed to do, that’s the designer’s fault and not the learners’. Second, make it as true to life as possible. Don’t make your learners do things that they aren’t going to find valuable. Third, testing, testing, testing! If you’re not sure if an idea will work, build out a rough version, and then get someone else to try it out. Kill your darlings. I have lots of fabulous ideas that totally bomb, and I have to let them go. Always test the heck out of your tutorials before you release them to your learners. You want to discover the problems before they become a real problem!