How to use APA referencing

The Open Polytechnic uses APA referencing. This page contains information about APA referencing and how to use it.

What is APA referencing?

APA is the abbreviation of the American Psychological Association, and APA referencing is based on the style of academic writing favoured by the APA. 

APA referencing:

  • Is a system that determines the style and format of your referencing, i.e. how the references are written.
  • Uses a reference list and in-text citations to acknowledge and identify sources.

APA referencing guidelines

Our students are required to use the APA system of referencing, which includes a referenced list and in-text citations to acknowledge their sources of information.

The resources below explain how to use APA referencing in your Open Polytechnic assignments, and include a number of examples:

The short guide to APA referencing (PDF 176 KB; opens in a new window)

APA style guide to electronic referencing (PDF 2,137; opens in a new window)


Referencing problems and solutions

Real-life scenarios to help you reference and avoid unintentional plagiarism.

Problem: I don’t remember where I found the information.

You’ve worked hard, done lots of reading but what you didn’t do is take good notes. Now that you’re writing your assignment you can’t remember which bits are your ideas or where you found the information. You decide to take a chance and put the all sources you remember in your reference list. Surely being a bit careless when it comes to taking notes isn't plagiarism?

Unfortunately, it is plagiarism and it’s a high price to pay for being disorganised.

What you should do

  • Record the details of all your source documents, i.e. where you found information for you assignment.
  • Keep detailed notes – they can be electronic or a hard copy (on paper) – make sure you keep your notes in a folder (electronic or paper) so you can find them when you need them.
  • This is what you need to record:
    - Where you found the source, i.e. In the Open Polytechnic library; borrowed from [name]; spoke to [name], etc. – you might need to consult the source again.
    - Your opinion of the source, i.e. useful or not – you don’t want to waste time going back to sources that aren’t useful.
    - All the information you’ll need to include in your reference list. Use the short guide to APA referencing to see what information you need for the various types of source material.
  • Write down, or copy, all possible quotes; include the source and the page number(s) for each quote.
  • Reference as you go; don’t leave all your referencing to the end.

Problem: I know I have to reference but I just can’t get my head around all this APA stuff.

You’ve done the research and written your assignment, but referencing seems like such a fuss about nothing – is it really necessary?

Yes, it is! Referencing shows where you found the information and acknowledges the creators of the information. You’ll not only lose marks if you don’t reference, you might be accused of plagiarism!

The good news is that referencing isn’t that hard and if you get it right, you’ll pick up a few extra marks!

What you should do

  • Print out the short guide to APA referencing and familiarise yourself with the contents. Keep the Short guide to APA at hand with you when doing assignments and, when referencing, look for an example that’s as similar to your source as possible, then copy the format (pattern).
    And remember, punctuation matters – check to make sure you get the all capital letters, full stops, commas, italics, etc. in the right places.
  • If you’re still not sure – call and ask your lecturer, a learning adviser or a librarian for help.

Problem: I get that I need a reference list but what are in-text references or citations? And what have they got to do with the reference list?

You’ve included all your sources in a reference list - surely that's enough to show you haven’t plagiarised?

No, unfortunately a reference list on its own isn’t enough; you still need in-text references or citations for direct quotes and paraphrases.

What you should do

  • Remember, there are two parts to acknowledging a source: an in-text citation (which is in the text of an assignment) and a reference list (at the end of an assignment).
  • Make sure the in-text citation and the entry in the reference list are linked: for every in-text citation you need a corresponding entry in your reference list. For example:

In-text citation (the in-text citations are highlighted)

According to Day and Devjee, the emergence in 1999 of the Centre for the Assessment of Prior Learning (CAPL) is significant and heartening (2000). The managers of the centre stated: "We expect CAPL to grow and expand as this new, flexible method of gaining qualifications becomes more widely accepted in both the polytechnic sector and industry" (Day & Devjee, 2000, p. 12).

Entry in reference list

Day, R., & Devjee, F. H. (2000, December). Otago Polytechnic’s experience in establishing a centre for assessment of prior learning (CAPL). Paper presented at the 7th International Conference on Experiential Learning (ICEL), Auckland, New Zealand.

 There’s more information on the format of in-text citations here: APA in-text citation - Massey University.

Problem: I know I have to reference but I don't always know what needs referencing and what doesn't.

Does everything need to be referenced? And what about ‘common knowledge’, does that also need to be referenced?

The information below should help you decide.

What you should do

  • Always reference the following:
    - The words, opinions and ideas of others – whether you find them in a book, journal, newspaper, report, conference paper, legislation, website, email, blog, on the radio or TV, in a lecture or conversation, or anywhere else.
    - Data, statistics, tables, graphs, code, audio and video material, illustrations, photographs or any other type of image.
  • You don’t need to reference
    - Your own ideas (as long as they haven’t been published or written in a previous assignment; in that case – you need to reference them.)
    - Common knowledge. This means something that lots of people will know, or information that can easily be found in many sources.
    For example, this is common knowledge (so you don’t need to cite it): Wellington is the capital of New Zealand.
    But this isn’t common knowledge (so you need to cite it): ‘Wellington is Cool-with-a-capital-C, crammed with more bars, cafes and restaurants per capita than New York, and a slew of gourmet producers including some 10 independent coffee roasteries.’ (Source:
    For more information see:
    Is it plagiarism? – Purdue University
  • Remember: the basic rule is that if you’re using someone else’s words and/or ideas, you need to acknowledge that by referencing. It’s better to be safe than sorry, so when in doubt, reference.

Problem: I'm not sure how to use quotations in an assignment. And how many quotes should I include?

A quotation is when you copy directly from a source, using the same words. You can use quotations in an assignment but you must acknowledge the source of the quote. You do this by using quotation marks and an in-text citation. If you don’t – it’s plagiarism.

What you should do

  • Enclose all quotes in quotation marks (inverted commas). Place the in-text citation near the quote and include the page number (if relevant), for example:
    "We expect CAPL to grow and expand as this new, flexible method of gaining qualifications becomes more widely accepted in both the polytechnic sector and industry." (Day & Devjee, 2000, p. 12)
  • If a quote is longer than 40 words, omit the quotation marks, start on a new line and indent the whole quotation.
    For more on this and some examples, see:
    Block quotations in APA style – APA Style blog
  • Use about four or five quotations in a 2000 word essay, or about one quotation per page. Lecturers want to see your understanding of the work and too many quotes will crowd out your own ideas.
  • APA referencing uses double quotation marks. Use single quotation marks for a quote within a quote.
    For more on this see:
    Help with punctuation around quotation marks - APA Style blog

More help with APA referencing

APA interactive - Massey University (opens in a new window)
This cite creates customised examples of APA references and in-text citations.

Referencite - University of Auckland (opens in a new window)
A comprehensive site covering all the essentials; includes interactive and practical examples; highly recommended.