Peer Review: Teach writing by teaching students to give good feedback

The KNIGHTLYnews is an online forum where FWS instructors and other teachers of writing can swap and share ideas for best classroom practice. Weekly posts are designed to help teachers develop lesson plans and writing assignments, and respond to classroom challenges by introducing new teaching tools and sharing emerging pedagogical ideas. Posts also direct readers to program and campus resources that support teaching and learning, and provide opportunities for peer collaboration and mentorship.

How productive is peer review anyway? First-year students and FWS instructors may both doubt the value of having students review other students’ papers. Students may think the instructor’s feedback is the only feedback that matters. However, our students will soon move onto other classes and honing their peer review skills can help them in future writing endeavors. More broadly, teaching students to give useful feedback to others can help them become stronger writers themselves. Here’s why:

When students have a draft due that they know will be read by other students, they step up their game. They can also be inspired by writing that's at their level, sometimes more so than by professional writing. They may see, for example, how other students struggle with the same writing problems as they do, like use of evidence, paragraph structure, or sentence-level clarity. We’ve heard students say to each other during reviews, “Wow this paper is really good!” Students do learn from each other as well as from us.

There are many options for running peer reviews. You can keep it simple—when a draft is due before class, you can allocate 20-30 minutes during class for them to read and comment on some aspects of the other person’s paper. You can assign pairs or simply have students count off. You can have them review just a paragraph or two (or a preparatory memo), instead of an entire draft. They can make comments on a Google doc, write a bulleted list of their suggestions, or complete a worksheet you provide.

While peer review can be open-ended, you can also give it structure. You can direct it so that it contributes to the specific writing skills or elements you’re teaching. For example, if you just taught them paragraph structure, you could ask them to evaluate that feature in their partner’s paper and to talk about ways to improve it.

You can also explicitly teach or model what good feedback looks like (e.g. specific, critical, supportive of the author’s larger purpose). Before assigning a review, you can explain these principles, or have students look at examples of helpful and unhelpful comments. Alternatively, you can give them a worksheet to fill out, which can double as a checklist of features you want them to consider before they turn in the final drafts. In our classes, we tell students to consider these principles/features on the worksheet in their revisions, regardless of whether their peers commented on them.

Another option is “speed dating peer review,” in which you have some students remain stationary and other students rotate to different spots and discuss different principles. For example, they might discuss paragraphs with their first peer, introductions with the second, and paragraphs with the third. Students often enjoy receiving feedback from different people.

A great way to use Thanksgiving break is to assign out-of-class peer review. Ask students to submit a draft before the break, and then do a peer review after they return. Kelly typically has her students turn in a draft of their final paper before they leave for break. The out-of-class peer review is due at 8am the Tuesday after break. This means they do not need to do it during the break.

If you do have students post their comments outside of class, it’s a good idea for the instructor to briefly review them to ensure that the peer reviews are equitable. To get the highest quality of comments, you may want to have them prepare comments and give them class time to discuss them. (This approach is time-intensive: probably best used for peer reviews of complete drafts of a major assignment.)

Finally, we think it’s worthwhile to tell students straightforwardly about the benefits of peer reviewing. This encourages them to take the activity seriously. Before the first couple reviews, we remind them: “Peer review is going to help you hone your writing skills. When you can constructively evaluate someone else’s work, you’ll also be able to improve your own.”

In these last few weeks of the term, peer review can be a way to reaffirm the classroom community, make our students less dependent on us, and imbue them with the confidence that they can take what they learned forward into other writing endeavors.

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