By: Jesse Lewis, Norman Paterson School of Public Policy and Administration

By the time they reach university, students have long since identified their interests and how to integrate those interests into their work. When given the option of choosing a topic for an academic paper, or a research assignment, or a thesis, students understand that they will write a stronger piece if they care about the topic. It is not this aspect of university work that students struggle with the most; it is the tedious work—the spellchecking, the referencing, the crafting of strong thesis statements, and so on. This is a part of academia that many students need help with and remain unmotivated to work on. This is a group struggle; thus, the solution emerges through group work. By engaging students through group work, teaching assistants (TAs) can engage students in a way that facilitates the adoption of necessary, if unexciting, academic skills. TAs can help students engage in a more comprehensive learning process by enhancing students’ self-belief, facilitating peer review exercises, and developing referencing workshops that students can work through as a group.

There are several ways to promote student engagement among university students, as described by Weimer (2012). One method is to enhance students’ self-belief by ensuring students know that they are capable of learning and have some control over the learning process (Weimer, 2012). Group work is one way students can feel that level of control, while at the same time providing them with an opportunity to pick up new skills. The first step is helping students identify their strengths so that they feel they can make meaningful contributions to their groups. Providing timely and helpful feedback near the start of the semester on each student’s progress can help with that process (Cowie, 1995). Given that our students are in university, they have at least one strength with which they can contribute to the group exercise. Whether that skill is writing thesis statements, editing for grammar, or establishing links between topics, as an instructor it is our responsibility to help students identify their strengths through feedback.

One form of group work is a peer review process that requires students evaluate the content and quality of their peers’ work. This is particularly helpful for identifying spelling/grammatical errors, writing style difficulties, and argument flow (Rieber, 2006). A starting word of advice: students need to ensure that their feedback addresses both areas of strength and areas for improvement, and that any critical comments are constructive in nature. Students are unlikely to make reforms in their work if they perceive feedback as solely negative in nature (Justman, 1998). A helpful exercise for instructors to conduct would be to provide examples to their class of helpful and unhelpful feedback so that students can gain an idea of what commentary they should provide to their cohort. Instructors can use this opportunity to provide students with feedback templates and set questions to facilitate the feedback process, especially given that many students may not have engaged in peer review processes prior to this exercise.

While many students are adept at the academic abilities described above, when it comes to referencing abilities, peer review assignments may not be the most effective tool. With the high level of nuance required to reference correctly, more engagement on the part of the instructor may be required. However, there is still an opportunity for group work to facilitate learning in this area. First, students need an overview of why referencing and in-text citations are obligations involved in conducting academic work. If students do not understand the importance of or recognize the significance of this task, they will lack the motivation to complete it accurately and consistently (Anyanwu, 2004). For this type of group work, presenting students with multiple forms of reference material (e.g., online journals, print books, newspaper articles) and asking them to work in small groups to complete the references is an ideal tactic. This allows students to collaborate on various forms of referencing with which different students may have expertise. It is essential for the instructor to then take up the examples with the whole class and identify the correct form of referencing so that students can learn the formal rules.

Finding ways to engage with students on the less-than-thrilling parts of academic work such as spelling/grammar, thesis statements, and referencing can be a challenging task for any instructor or TA. Given that most students struggle with at least one of these tasks, facilitating group learning where students can exchange ideas, strategies, and skills is an exercise worth trying. In addition to providing feedback for every assignment, instead of identifying the same areas for improvement over and over, student collaboration can help strengthen the areas of academic work with which students struggle. Not only is this a helpful exercise for students, but it will help instructors with teaching, marking, and providing more comprehensive feedback to their students.


Anyanwu, R. (2004). Lessons on plagiarism: Issues for teachers and learners. International Education Journal, 4(4), 178-187.

Cowie, N. (1995). Students of process writing need appropriate and timely feedback on their work, and in addition, training in dealing with that feedback. Saitama University Review, 31(1), 181-194.

Justman, J. J. (1998). Feedback: Breakfast of champions. Paper presented at the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point. Stevens Point, Wisconsin. Retrieved from

Rieber, L. J. (2006). Using peer review to improve student writing in business courses. Journal of Education for Business, 81(6), 322-326.

Weimer, M. (2012, July 26). 10 ways to promote student engagement. Faculty Focus. Retrieved from