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What Works With Peer Review (If That’s What It’s Called)?

posted: 10.20.11 by Andrea Lunsford

I recently followed a very interesting thread on the WPA List about peer review, where colleagues were talking about what this activity should be called, how it can work best, and how it should be evaluated. Some noted that “review” has a negative ring to it and preferred “response” instead. Others worried about how to encourage students to take peer review (or response!) seriously—and how to help students get something out of the process even if their fellow students don’t give them very good advice. Still others discussed ways to deal with students who don’t participate or who show up to class with slipshod responses—or none at all.

Peer review has been a foundational part of writing instruction ever since composition made the turn from “product” to “process,” and that’s a long time. So I’m encouraged to see such lively and engaged debate on this much-used classroom practice:  even our most time-tested strategies need to be scrutinized and rethought.

Over the years, I have certainly made adjustments in the way I use peer review.  First, I have learned to model it carefully for students, sometimes by asking a group from a previous term to come in and enact a substantive review/discussion of one student’s work, sometimes by doing a review myself with a willing student—and then asking for comments and suggestions for how my review could have been more helpful.  In addition, I take time to share research on peer review with my students, telling them that studies have shown that review and revision improve writing exponentially. I also ask them to put their cards on the table, sharing with the class their own experiences (bad as well as good) at being part of peer groups. This discussion inevitably gets to a number of problems: one student trying to dominate others, another not contributing to the conversation, others feeling like they are the ones doing “all the work,” and so on.  I find that talking through these issues in class helps to clear the air and get everyone on the same page: we are all in this together!

My students now write letters to one another, partly in response to particular requests for help from the student writer. These letters say, in a direct conversational way, what the reviewers got from the draft, how they would summarize its main points, what they admire and why, and what specific suggestions they have for improvement. The letters become the basis for in-class peer sessions, which concentrate on what the student writer should do next. Lately I have asked students to work together on the design as well as the substance of the essay (I know that’s an invidious distinction in some ways but still . . . .).  I find they have wonderful ideas about the layout of an essay or project and that their suggestions about how to include illustrations are usually right on the mark.

Finally, I ask students to evaluate their own contributions and that of their other group members throughout the term, and then we use these self-evaluations to negotiate a peer review grade for each one.

What’s working best for you and your students during peer review?

Categories: Peer Review
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