Writing is a difficult and complex craft. Writing to learn new material or exercise higher-order intellectual work is all the more complex. Many students believe that “real” writers can whip out a paper from scratch the day before it’s due in a single inspired (or desperate) effort, so that is what they as student writers aim for. When GSIs start grading a pile of these last-minute “inspired” papers with all their careless errors and underdeveloped ideas, they may well despair of deciphering them, let alone evaluating them for a grade. Many of the papers just don’t seem finished.

GSIs can make the students’ job, and their own, much more productive by making students responsible to produce finished work. Drafts, revisions, and proofreading should be the norm for students’ writing process. The result of this is that GSIs will grade papers focusing more on the students’ intellectual accomplishment than on defective or incomplete writing.

Drafts

Require students to bring a draft of a major assignment to class, and give some kind of homework credit for drafts that really show substantial effort toward completion. By definition these drafts will not be polished, and there’s no point in polishing at this stage when the content is subject to review and revision. (Ease student fears of showing work in progress by letting them know what you do and do not expect at this stage.)

GSIs may or may not have time to read through all the drafts and give feedback (though it’s most effective if they do), but they can give students the set of standards they would use to give feedback and give some class time to peer editing. Provide students with a worksheet (you can view an example of a peer review worksheet) showing the kinds of questions you would be asking about a paper, questions that reflect both the learning objectives of the assignment and the grading rubric. It is also helpful to provide the student writer with a separate worksheet for deciding how to use the peer reviewer’s comments. This isn’t about making students do the GSIs’ work. Rather, it’s about developing students’ sense of what constitutes excellence, and practicing the kind of review that happens in many professional settings.

Revisions

Many students completely misunderstand the notion of revision. They tend to make whatever superficial improvements are suggested, but when faced with a paragraph or a section of a paper that needs to be strengthened or rethought, they will often leave it substantially as it is with minor corrections or word changes. GSIs can help students understand what to do with the feedback they receive, whether it comes from the GSIs or from fellow students.

One strategy for teaching revision is to demonstrate revision of a spotty or disorganized paragraph in class, then follow it up with some group work revising a different paragraph. Another strategy is to have students reflect on the comments their paper received, write down the issues that are most important to rework, and come up with a revision plan. They must do this directly after peer review so the issues are fresh and the students can remember what to work on when they later sit down to revise.

Another strategy is work on a a student’s document using collaborative editing in bDrive (Google Docs). The student shares a paper draft with you, which you work and comment on together simultaneously.

Proofreading

Finally, emphasize proofreading by making it a discrete step, the last step, in the writing process. Distinguish proofreading from revision. While revision addresses large-scale and substantive issues such as coherence of argument or appropriate degree of detail or changing a summary into an analysis, proofreading identifies and eliminates surface errors such as improper word usage, misspelling, or mistakes in sentence structure. Consider providing students with a checklist of common errors to correct and usages particular to your field. For an example, see Checklist for All Assignments (Biology).

Some GSIs are reluctant to give class time or their prep time to drafts and peer editing, but that time invested saves a great deal of time in the grading process later on. The papers read better, problems are reduced, and the GSIs can evaluate the quality of learning and content — the objectives the instructor had in mind in assigning the paper.

Each of these steps is the students’ responsibility to master, but the GSI can help students take on these responsibilities and at the same time help themselves when it comes time to grade.