Making Peer Review Work

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Since we’ve been discussing peer response lately, I thought I’d share my journey through several years of experimenting to improve its effectiveness. Back in my TA days, I had students bring printed copies of their essays and exchange, read, and respond during class, a combination of marginal feedback and direct responses on handouts to emphasize learning outcomes or specific assignment goals. I cringe as I write this because, as I’m sure you all know, the drawbacks with that model are numerous and insurmountable–everything from printer problems to anxiety issues over time constraints, both of which leave students unable to focus and engage at the level necessary for meaningful response. Even worse, students too often either misplace the paper feedback or drop the class and take it with them, seriously handicapping their group members when compiling their final portfolios.

Knowing there had to be a better way, I moved into other models and experimented with various digital platforms, but it wasn’t until last year when I ventured outside my comfort zone and moved into instructor led, dialogue driven, small group workshops that I finally began to see how effective and powerful peer response can be. I don’t claim to have this mastered, but the feedback from students was instant and has remained consistent–they express over and over again how these workshops are the single most significant thing they’ve done in a writing class. That means something.

Rather than just lay out a format, I want to use this writing space to give my workshops some practical underpinning by analyzing why they work and fleshing out what I now view as the elements of successful peer response.

Adequate Time for Reading: This is perhaps the most significant shift for me. My students don’t read and respond during class time anymore. They do it for homework, in their own space and on their own time. All accomplished writers understand the importance of finding the proper space for writing, be it an office desk with a view of the countryside or a quiet closet away from distraction. Well, that applies to reading too. Just as students struggle with writing-on-the-spot in class, the pressures of time and noise can hinder proper depth in reading, especially with something as complex as responding to peers’ academic writing.

Adequate Space and Time for Reflective Commenting: For many of us, the movement from paper to digital was slow, with student submissions perhaps being the last holdout, but it’s hard to deny the flexibility of responding with digital software like Word or Google docs. For the record, I highly recommend Google docs over Word because of the more dynamic space where multiple responders can comment on one document, paring down redundancy and encouraging more varied revision suggestions. More importantly, it makes revising a more focused activity for writers. Rather than wading though a stack of papers or computer files, writers can compare feedback, considering each comment in context, disseminating which to adopt and which to accept with more awareness.

TIP: I’ve found that reserving my digital comments until all group members have responded to be the best model. Otherwise, students accuse me of stealing their thunder. Over time, because this model allows students to more deeply engage with each other’s work than I have time for, I’m finding myself feeling obligated to offer fewer and fewer written comments, limiting then to larger content issues.

Space for Dialogue: Our busy schedules prevent most of us from doing what we really feel is pedagogically sound practice–individual student conferences. I practiced them during my first two years of teaching but found them an unwise use of time as I was saying the same things over and over and, what’s worse, my one-on-one feedback naturally took precedence, negating peer response in a way that made it seem like a waste of time for both writers and responders. The small-group workshop lessens this, as much as it can be lessened, as all group members share equal footing in the discussion around revision opportunities. Like the digital realm, I reserve my verbal comments for last. To my delight, I’m often left without much to say because others in the group have addressed everything needed, another reason I’ve grown comfortable with fewer written comments myself.

But the most important reason for dialogue is clarity, the ability to ask questions, to clarify how or why a reader responded in a particular way. This is the good stuff that can’t be replicated in written comments. When students encounter opposing reactions on paper, they make revision decisions based on what feels safe or whom they trust more. When they encounter opposition and discuss it, they gain a new way of reading their own words. One of the most frequent back-and-forths in small-group sessions is “what I was trying to say was …” followed by “oh, well that wasn’t how I read it at all.” Learning to anticipate audience reaction is the fuel for writing development.

Flexibility: This is important. As with any discussion, you can’t predict where small-groups might take a conversation. Early in the semester, I use the workshop space to discuss Google doc comments they’ve already offered to each other, but as they become more comfortable with workshopping and more familiar with each other, they begin to blossom as responders and often surprise me with the depth of their concern for their peers’ writing and thought development. During an extended research project, I devote one whole session asking each writer to look forward and discuss potential directions for their project. These workshops result in rich discussions of audience, purpose, genre, and medium and codify these concepts for students in ways that lecture or even simple practice simply can’t do.

Accountability: This may be the most controversial of my approaches, but for several semesters I’ve had students assess each other for peer response. They anonymously rate each group member on a scale from 1 to 10, and any grade below 10 requires a brief explanation. I was worried about how this would go, but it works perfectly. If you think about it, who knows better than the writer which responses and responders were helpful and which were not? Students are honest in rating their group members. A key component is a pre-response discussion about what kinds of help each writer desires. While I discourage editing, I do allow students to comment on patterns of error, but most patterns on early drafts are more oversight than error, so some writers devalue those types of responses when they rate each other. I share an overview of what writers say worked and what didn’t, but for the most part, low scores are accrued more often due to lack of engagement (not responding on Google docs / not participating in discussion during workshop) than deficiency.

Multiple Voices (including the instructor): Because of limited time, the in-class paper exchange model limits feedback to two responders at best, but small-group workshops afford space for up to 5 responders, or a group of 6. This solves several issues:

  1. If you have two responders and one doesn’t engage with the writer’s work, a serious gap ensues. Multiple responders ensure every writer has sufficient insight for revision.
  2. The more responders you have, the better the discussion about reactions. This gives writers real opportunity for disseminating feedback. The more choices they must make, the more authority they gain over their writing movements.
  3. Discussions become student-led rather than instructor-directed. Letting everyone take turns in offering responses. This means my feedback overshadows peers’ with less frequency.
  4. The larger pool exposes students to more voices, perspectives, and writing choices.

I guess the biggest reason I advocate for the small-group workshop is that I enjoy them as much as my students. I love when they surprise me. It’s exciting when a responder offers feedback that transforms an idea into something it could never have become without proper engagement and dialogue. Teaching brings with it many opportunities for reward, and one of them is certainly watching that spark of writerly identity flare up in front of you.

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Filed under first-year writing, FYC, Higher Ed, Inquiry, Writing

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