Peer Review, How I Hate to Love You

It’s a topic we have all thought about deeply. We have attended workshops and presentations, read scholarship, tried new and exciting ways of getting our students to collaborate during the revision process in our writing classes – and collaborate effectively.  I thought I had it down, really.  Then, the other day, I had a conference with one of my most impressive and hard-working students, and that all changed.

This student works diligently to revise his essays and to earn his grades.  He is straightforward and participates in class regularly, and has never missed an assignment. Overall, this is a student whose feedback I seriously value in terms of what might work in class and what might not work.  As we were conferencing over a draft of his essay, he asked, “Will we be doing peer review for this essay?”  When I answered that no, we would instead be using one-on-one conferences and instructor feedback for this one essay, he replied, “Oh good.  Peer review has mostly been useless for me.”

Punch to the gut!  Man down! Red Team Go!  S.O.S.! All manner of emergency exclamations ran through my mind.  Useless? How could this be? Grades are improving (for the most part).  Writing is getting better (through my rose-colored glasses).  In short, I had gotten cocky.  So, I asked my student, “Why do you say that, Student?”  His response was an eye-opener, and something I hope we can all use as a catalyst for discussion on the topic. 

Student said, “Well, the one time we sat in a circle was helpful.”  (To be clear, this is what I call “Carousel Peer Review.” I sit students in a circle and give them each four identical sheets of paper. Each paper contains a space for the reviewer’s name, the writer’s name, and three questions:

1. What is the author’s central claim?  Explain whether or not it is arguable and if not, how it could be.

2. What is the best part of the essay and why?

3. What part of the essay needs the most improvement and why?

Students pass their essay to the left once, read and fill out the sheet and when I call time, pass the essay to the left again and complete it for another, and so on. This way, they get four short but focused peer reviews, which I hand back at the end of class.)  So, I asked Student, “Is it because you got so many reviews back?” And he replied…

         “No. It was the best because everyone had to be quiet.”

He went on to explain that during past peer reviews, in which students had been placed in small groups with traditional and more elaborate peer review sheets to fill out, he felt that nothing got done, that it was just an opportunity to socialize and that the last time we had done it, the other students in his group had not revised their essays at all. “And,” he asked, “Why should I revise their papers for them if they do not want to do the work?” So of course, I start questioning my methods.  I mean, it’s not as if I do not circle the room and meet with each group during peer review, but we all know that small group work can be a tricky monster; students can seem really on-task when we approach their group, but then revert back to talk of Facebook and what is going on that night or what they watched on TV that week as soon as we are out of ear shot.  In addition, if we are using peer review as a way for students to receive revision comments outside of instructor feedback (say, for a middle draft when we have already extensively commented on first drafts), unless we closely evaluate each essay on peer review day (which sort of defeats the purpose), we don’t really have a way of knowing whether or not a student has truly revised the essay. 

Several ideas are coming to the surface. Should students show up to peer review day with a written summary of their revisions?  Should a requirement of peer review be that they somehow articulate their revisions to the group?  Do we have to be such police officers?

 So, I put these questions to all of you.  How do you handle the not-doers, the “I refuse to revise because only my classmates are going to be reading this anyway” students?  To beat a dead horse, how do you make your peer review effective?




3 thoughts on “Peer Review, How I Hate to Love You

  1. I do a shorter, more focused peer review now. The questions are all about meeting the assignment’s criteria. Did student do X (which is required)? What’s good/needs improvement? And then I ask a couple of reflective questions, which I hope get students thinking about what they should work on improving in their own drafts.

  2. Peer review is one aspect of class that my students universally complain about. I am amazed that apparently many teachers do not review a first or second draft but leave all the commentary to peer review. In my class that has, in the beginning, amounted to, “I like it. It’s good,” or “I think you might use a few more commas.”

    I have a tried several ways of doing peer review; for example, focusing only on the introductory paragraph, or only on sentence structure, but these don’t create the results I am looking for.

    I have settled on half-hour, four-person conferences — three students and I. The students email their papers to the two others in their peer group (and me) before we meet and then we go from there in our conferences. Since everyone has already reviewed the papers of everyone else, we can make real progress. In the beginning it’s “I liked it. It was good.” That gives me an opportunity to explain that they should model what I do on their essays — extensive comments, suggestions, and sometimes corrections. After one or two conferences, they get the hang of it, and these conferences have been the richest part of my classes for the last three or four semesters.

    Scheduling these long conferences means splitting the class over two days, with one group coming one day, the other the next, but the attention is so focused and helpful that I have found it to be worth losing a class period.

    In the beginning, the peer review is only useful when an advanced writer (the teacher) sits in and guides the discussion. After a few sessions, the students get the idea and can carry on by themselves. Once they get the idea, reading others’ papers sharpens their eye with their own essays.

    I provide a “Principles of Good Writing” sheet for them to consult as they critique their peers’ essays, and this sharpens their understanding of what those principles are — monitoring of pronouns (no changing from I, to you, to we), no sentence fragments (that is only for the pros), one paragraph per idea/one idea per paragraph, attention to the relationship between writer and reader (no preaching or ranting, showing personal investment in the claim) and so on. They are asked if and/or how the essays inform, entertain, and challenge them as readers.

    The confidence gained by learning how to review other students’ papers is almost palpable, but they are not skilled enough to jump right in without guidance.

  3. Thanks for the post Sarah. No doubt that peer-review is a daunting matter and this discussion raises what I agree are some key issues: student investment, focus, and motivation toward each others work. I would have to agree with both Akilah’s and Ann’s comments above regarding methods of addressing these issues and would like to expand on a few of these ideas in the spirit of conversation.

    I feel that keeping peer-review focused with either worksheets or giving different peer-reviewers different roles based on the writing criteria not only give the students more of a sense of access to the process (just in the sense of them having a clear role as well as working toward a specific goal) but also emphasizes, or makes more visible, the fact that the peer-review is work that the readers are doing for themselves. In other words, the more (and sooner) students come to realize that the reading, diagnosing, evaluating, and responding to other students’ writing is most valuable to themselves (rather than the author of the essay they are reading), their investment will be stronger. This is obviously a riff upon the old refrain that “better readers make better writers,” but I actively frame the importance and value of peer-review as such, reminding students that an essential (if not the only) way to develop one’s writing is to be able to identify what makes for strong and less successful writing. This, at times, helps with the motivation in the sense that the peer-review isn’t about helping the other, but moreover helping themselves.

    This emphasis upon the reader also “loosens” up the peer-review process in the sense that we are not reading an essay to sculpt it toward some ideal (in fact, I usually find that students in peer-review groups will have a diversity of responses to the same essay and often “misread” essays due to being inexperienced readers), rather we are reading to discover each of our own critical voices and processes; to recognize the challenges and difficulties of our own writing processes within an essay that is not our own. If our feedback upon an essay helps the author – all the better – but I feel that the highest value from peer-review amongst beginning college writers is found within their own personal development of a critical eye.

    To this point – and I’ll be honest here and admit that I haven’t yet done this in my own classes – perhaps taking such individualized questions about “what did you find most in/effective about the essay and why” further would be a kind of reflection question about what students each learned about their own writing process from reading someone else’s essay.

    Two more quick thoughts regarding focus and investment. The first regards having reading “leaders.” When I was studying creative writing in college, one of my teachers – Percival Everett – would assign each of us to be the “leader” of a specific story that the entire class was workshopping the following week. While we would all read all of our classmates stories and have to prepare comments for them, each of us would also be responsible for starting the conversation and raising questions about one of the stories. Not only does this make for a wonderful way to level the playing field within peer-review (by a focused sharing of the workload and by minimizing my being, as the teacher, the only “authority” on the essays), but it also gives the student a fuller sense of responsibility in relation to their reading. Percival would have us not only describe what we thought the story was about and why we thought it was important (our own interpretation) and point toward specific aspects of the story that we thought were strong and/or needed further work, but we were also responsible for leading the discussion about the work by having specific questions or lines of inquiry about how and where to workshop the story. To note, this activity also emphasizes the individual’s reading process as much (if not more) than the goal of getting critical feedback.

    Finally, I have also found it effective (primarily later in the semester after a number of peer-review processes have taken place) to have students prepare brief reading guides for their essays. Perhaps even more effective for revision, the goal here is to have students write a brief paragraph or series of questions about what they would like their readers to consider or address in their writing. While I know there is value to the kind of “cold” or “blind” reading, the reading guides allow the individual students to reflect upon their own writing process and work toward recognizing the strengths and weaknesses of their own essays. I still maintain that peer-reviewers should also respond with whatever strikes them individually (and not just follow the guides), but the guides again emphasize the secondary thinking about the writing process at the same time that they focus the conversation to the author’s needs. I usually have students do this “guiding” on a small scale by having them put three questions for me at the bottom of their early and middle drafts to help me give them the feedback that would be of most value (an idea Tom Kitchen taught me). A bonus here is that I can be more focused and individual in my feedback to each draft instead of riffing off the same comment upon each draft.

    Thanks again for the post and conversation.

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