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Top TA Complaints About Student Writing

TAs often hold student writing in low regard. Sometimes, however, the problem with student writing is a problem with how students have been taught. Here are four common complaints about student writing and their teaching remedies:

“My students don’t know grammar or the meaning of words.”

Grammatical inconsistencies and language misuse create a frustrating reading experience. All is not lost, however. You can help students improve their writing. Point out patterns of grammatical or sentence-structure errors in their work, and encourage them to write clearly and simply (which they often confuse with “simplistically”). Refer them to on-campus tutoring for help with these issues, and tell them you’ll expect improvement in the revision or in the next assignment.

We’ll discuss more strategies for dealing with imperfect writing skills and using writing campus writing resources in Responding to Student Writing.


“My students think all texts are ‘novels.’”

The tendency to conflate all written material under one grand category is annoying. But it may not represent your students’ wholesale lack of textual sophistication. It may simply indicate that they need more discussion of texts as texts. You may have to talk about the kind of writing your discipline relies on (and creates) as well as distinctions between primary and second sources.

We’ll talk more about increasing students’ textual and disciplinary awareness in Clarifying the Writing Assignment and Preparing Students to Write the Assignment (By Writing).


“My students don’t know how to make an argument.”

Some high schools equate “essay” with “personal reflection.” Your students may never have learned the difference between an assertion and an unsubstantiated opinion, between an analysis and a summary. It is possible, however, to facilitate the shift from anecdotal to analytical thinking. Show them what an argument looks like and let them practice writing their own. Do this by explaining the assignment’s main intellectual task (“what does it mean to ‘examine’ this issue?”) and pointing out examples of argumentation in the course readings. You might also present exemplary student thesis statements with supporting evidence, and then have students consider one another’s work-in-progress.

We’ll discuss how to help your students make an argument in Preparing Students to Write the Assignment (By Writing) and Responding to Student Writing.


“My students turn in unpolished work.”

A few student writers don’t care about their finished product. Others are so rushed that they don’t have time to proofread and edit. One way to make sure your students polish their writing before they hit “print” is to break the assignment into steps. If they approach their work in stages, they won’t be dealing with the assignment’s various demands all at one time (the night before). Students may have a chance to discuss their questions in class, such as when to put titles in quotation marks and when to underline them. At the very least, they’ll have energy to do some fine tuning at the end.


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