The following list of common writing issues was created by a group of GSIs who were teaching or preparing to teach R&C courses. What teaching and learning activities would you use to address the following issues? Where would you look for resources? It’s a good idea to be on the lookout for materials that may help your students advance their skills in these areas.*

Simply recognizing these writing problems can be challenging, especially for GSIs who do their own confident writing by instinct and haven’t had to explain the details until now.** Fortunately, the road from good writer to good writing instructor has been traveled by many GSIs who are eager to share their work with others.

R&C GSIs have developed a wealth of materials for their students to use in cultivating their skills as academic writers. The following teaching ideas and activities can serve as models for guiding a class through difficult processes. In each case, the GSI has designed the activity for a particular class and with that class’s difficulties and content in mind. Feel free to modify them for your own teaching context.

Some of the materials can be found at the bCourses project site R&C Teaching Resources for GSIs. They are intended for use by UC Berkeley GSIs and are therefore password protected. To gain access to this site, please email a request to the GSI Center and we will add you.

If in the course of your teaching you have created learning activities that have succeeded for your students, consider posting them on the bCourses project site or sending them to the GSI Center. GSIs often expend a lot of time re-inventing materials that already exist, and they can benefit enormously from this kind of sharing.

Topic Choice

Paper is organized around too large a question to address well in the assigned page count, or around a kind of question that doesn’t fit well in the course or the discipline.

Structure of Essay

If they have largely relied on the five-paragraph essay structure in the past, students will need instruction on how to deploy longer papers and make them cohesive. At this stage students may not be sure what a successful essay for an R&C course looks like — key features, quality of argument, audience address, use of evidence, and so on.

Thesis Statement

Students may need instruction on what counts as a productive thesis, how to develop one, and how to critique and improve one. The necessity of a specific thesis statement, at what point in the paper it should be placed, and what sort of question it answers can vary among disciplines.

Structured Argument

Essay either contains several somewhat unrelated observations or points, or contains several quotations or summaries strung together with a mere generalization, or doesn’t deliver the kind of argument the introduction promises, or fails to provide transitions that link one part of the argument to the next. The argument may be weak or inadequately explored.

Use of Quotations

An essay shows ineffective incorporation of quotations into the student’s sentence structure or argument; it may include tangential bibliographic references seemingly to look academic. Or it presents quotations in place of the student’s own analysis.


A paper uses someone else’s ideas or words as if they were the student’s own. Plagiarism can take the form of cutting and pasting bits of the writings of others and using them in one’s paper without acknowledgement, turning in someone else’s writing as one’s own, or turning in a paper of one’s own that was written for credit in a different class, without the permission of the instructor.

See also Plagiarism in the Academic Misconduct section of the Teaching Guide.

Paragraph Structure

Paragraph divisions may appear random, or paragraphs may lack topic sentences, or they may address too many points, or they may fail to link with the previous or following paragraphs in a logical way.

  • What Makes a Good Paragraph? (at the bCourses project site R&C Teaching Resources for GSIs)

Appropriate Tone

The tone is too colloquial, or the student has attempted to write so formally that the writing gets beyond his or her control.

Unfinished Papers

The paper has several points that have not been adequately thought through or linked, or the order of presentation is not clear, or the paper needs thorough editing and proofreading.

Sentence Boundary Errors

There are frequent comma splices or run-on sentences, or confusingly combined complex/compound sentences, or sentence fragments. Punctuation mistakes are related to sentence boundary errors, not just “not knowing how to use a comma.”

Incorrect Word Usage

Key words in the essay are misused; word choices lack precision; word choices have connotations the writer seems unaware of; language may not be gender-inclusive.

Incoherent Writing

Writing is so unclear that it’s difficult to know what the point is, or it is difficult to discern whether the paper is incoherent because the ideas are incoherent or because the writing is incoherent.

Stigmatizing Errors

Errors that skillful writers fluent in Standard Written Edited English would not make, for example lack of subject-verb agreement, or lack of correct verb tense markers, or incorrect prepositions, or incorrectly used set-phrases.

Stylistic Errors

For example, verb tense may shift unnecessarily between present and past; sentence rhythm may be choppy (all short sentences) or repetitive (same sentence structure used too often). The main claim may be buried in a prepositional phrase that’s embedded in a dependent clause in a compound-complex, 80-word sentence.


* Of course, many composition handbooks also give instruction and exercises (see Handbooks and Guides for Students). On this page we want to highlight ways UC Berkeley GSIs have addressed the specific population of UC Berkeley undergraduates.

** Materials are available for GSIs wanting a refresher on grammar to prepare them to discuss writing problems with students. For example, see Diane P. Freedman (1984), “Improving Sentences: Common Sentence Problems and Common Terms,” chapter 7 in Fredric V. Bogel and Katherine Gottschalk, eds., Teaching Prose: A Guide for Writing Instructors (New York: Norton), 216–60. See also the Additional Resources page at the end of this section.