I am a grad student and this is my first time as TA for a course which requires me to grade essays. I usually grade assignments with more objective answers (think late undergrad science labs). A problem I have been facing while grading these is whether or not I should refer external resources to these students like Mendeley or Grammarly.

The course is a very introductory course with mostly freshmen taking it. It is very evident that a lot of these students don't know how and where to cite their work. The instructor has provided them with links to read about the citation style. I usually leave comments telling them where a citation might be needed but there are wrong ways of citing which I see often (like putting page numbers in APA citations for everything, not just quotes). I provide them with a link to our University's guide, but sometimes I feel like it would be much more useful to the students if they learnt how to use Mendeley (or any other reference management software for that matter), but I am not sure if it is right to do so.

Another important thing that I also come across very frequently is that since there are a lot of international students in the class, for whom English might not be the first language, they have very poor grammar. I usually point them to our university's academic skills centre but since usually there are points for grammatical correctness and writing style, I hate it when they lose points for something they can't do anything about. They are freshmen who probably haven't had enough time to learn the language yet I think. I would like to point them to Grammarly, but again, that might become an easy way out for them and might not be the right thing to do.

What is the best idea in this kind of situation? Is it usually okay or even allowed to point them to these kinds of resources?

  • How come "there are points for grammatical correctness and writing style" (even more in English!) in an "undergrad science lab" assignment? This is not something that should be taken into account at that stage. You are simply penalizing students that after all might be enormously better than the rest.
    – John B
    Dec 13, 2019 at 1:40
  • I have no hand in making the rubric. I did discuss this issue with the CI, but he said that I should just point them to the skills centre if need be Dec 13, 2019 at 1:50
  • And this is not an Undergrad science lab. This is an introductory course to earth sciences. I said I usually grade undergrad science labs. Sorry for the misunderstanding. Dec 13, 2019 at 1:55

1 Answer 1



Citations are important. It's usually going to take several classes to teach undergrads how to do it properly.

"The professionals" (i.e. career academics) use tools, like Mendeley and BibTex; it's perfectly alright for students to learn to do it too. Actually, writing a long paper without a reference manager is a really bad idea. You're going to make more mistakes doing it by hand. And f you have to change style, you're in trouble if you have to do that by hand. For example, if you submitted a paper to one journal but get rejected, and want to submit to a different journal that requires a different citation format. If you use a reference manager then changing all your references can be done relatively easily.

But to use tools correctly, you do have to have an understanding of the underlying process. So you should also require the students to be able to apply a citation by hand, if required.

I would say that this calls for a two-part exercise, first learning to apply two different citation styles by hand ("Cite this journal paper, proceedings paper and book according to standard X, then according to standard Y"), and then as a second exercise using a tool ("Enter the data, then export a reference according to standard X, then export according to standard Y"). So instead of just pointing out the existence of these tools, actually push your students to learn to use them.


It feels childish to grade academic content for langue: it ought to be substance over form. But in the real world, form matters. Consider what could happen if an article is written poorly:

  • It may be hard to read. Fewer busy academics will read it.
  • It may be hard to understand. Will convince fewer academics of your ideas.
  • It may be misunderstood.
  • What the text actually ends up saying, isn't what the author meant it to say.

All of these are bad, both for the author and the academic community. Good writing isn't a frivolous form over substance thing. It's important.

If the language in a paper is really bad, then that makes the paper bad. Even if the ideas and research were good. The medium fails the message.

I usually point them to our university's academic skills centre but since usually there are points for grammatical correctness and writing style, I hate it when they lose points for something they can't do anything about.

Yes, they can do something about it (avail themselves of the academic skills centre, get language training). And they have to, in order to graduate as good academics. By subtracting points for poor language you're pushing them in the direction where they need improvement.

(Nobody said it was going to be fun. It's good to be compassionate; it's not good to shield people from the push they need to improve.)

So what does that mean for tools like Grammarly? Well, it's good to support yourself with tools, but if you have a serious deficiency in English then the tool isn't going to fix that.

I would say discuss the tool in class:

  • Why is good language important? (So that people understand you and take you seriously.)
  • What can the tool do for you? (Catch common mistakes, signal bad style, find things you overlooked.)
  • What are the limitations of the tool? (Generally tools have trouble when you meant A, but wrote syntactically correct B. Computers are good at doing what we say, not what we meant.)
  • What can you do if the tool is not enough for you? (How to evaluate if you have a deficiency, what can you do to fix a deficiency?)
  • Designing exercises to help them learn citations is a good idea, however, what would be the way to go if we don't really have as much time to do things like that? We actually have similar exercises designed to introduce students to other concepts like scientific vs non-scientific writing by making them write the same essay in a Journalistic style and then a Scientific style. But this usually is done over two weeks. In between the submissions, we usually clarify some concepts, point out major differences in style that they need to be aware of, etc. Dec 13, 2019 at 16:24
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    The only way I can think of of doing this is to have them do these exercises within those weeks. And thanks for the advice about Grammarly, I will do that next time Dec 13, 2019 at 16:27
  • I can't really help you rebalance your timetable mid-course :P When setting up for the future, you should take into account that tools like BibTex, while powerful, do have a steep initial learning curve. I'd make the exercises more about making a good effort and learning something, than about scoring points for getting it perfect the first time. It's not uncommon that learning these things is repeated across multiple undergrad courses, and eventually it sticks.
    – ObscureOwl
    Dec 13, 2019 at 16:53
  • Yeah true, my timetable cannot really be changed right now anyway. I would rather avoid introducing LaTeX since I have found from a lot of my colleagues that they don't really use LaTeX a lot most of the time. So I am not sure if that would be as useful to them. And also there are regular workshops on using LaTeX at our university which also cover BibTeX. I think asking them to use Mendeley would be fine. Dec 13, 2019 at 17:01
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    I don't have any experience with Mendeley. LaTeX is a bit of an all or nothing affair - if you're in some disciplines/departments, it's pretty much the standard. Outside there, it's pretty rare. Personally, I'm in love.
    – ObscureOwl
    Dec 13, 2019 at 22:08

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