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Peer Review in Practice in the Paperless Writing Class

posted: 5.24.13 by archived

This is my fourth (and last) post on the topic of peer workshops. I have written more about this practice than I anticipated and yet, I find I have a bit more to say. In this post, I’ll try to describe the process I actually use to facilitate peer workshops in the Paperless Writing Class. I don’t claim this sequence to be unique or even terribly innovative. But this hybrid method has been working for me, combining, as it does, elements of face-to-face and online interaction.

Step 1: Students write a draft of their assignment and then a) upload a copy to the learning-management system (LMS) and b) bring two hard copies to class.

Getting students to complete a full draft of an assignment when that draft will not be graded can be a challenge. I have found that having students upload drafts to the LMS works as a kind of Jedi-mind-trick: it somehow makes the process seem more official and most students actually comply.

Step 2: In class, I model how to give effective feedback and clarify my expectations for the assignment by reading and reviewing one student’s draft prior to the peer workshop.

I think this step is crucial to the process–before students get into groups to talk to one another about their drafts, I want them to hear me talking about one students’ draft, so they have that discussion in mind as they read through their peers’ work. I am both modeling how to give feedback and providing a way of talking about the exigencies of a particular assignment.

Step 3: Students arrange themselves into groups of three, exchange drafts, and read their work aloud to one another.

Some groups go to the corners of the room, others go out in the hall or outside if it’s a nice day. If there are empty classrooms nearby, I send groups to them. And then I leave them alone. Entirely. My only role during this part of the process, as I see it, is to keep them on track and make sure that each group member actually does get the chance to read his/her paper aloud. This step takes a good deal of time and really doesn’t work well with longer papers, but there is nothing better that I have found for showing students how sloppy and riddled with errors and unclear sentences their first drafts usually are.

Step 4: Students take copies of their classmates’ drafts home and, for homework for the next class, reread them and post a feedback letter to the Discussion Board for each of their groupmates.

I grade the feedback letters (check, check-plus, check-minus). I usually give these instructions:

      Write a brief letter (250-300 words) to each of your groupmates which answers the following questions (be sure to start your letter “Dear…” and end it “Sincerely,”):
      a. Given your understanding of the assignment, what is working about the writer’s first draft. What is good? What do you like? (Point to three specific aspects of his/her draft that are working or “good”).
      b. Given your understanding of the assignment, what in regard to this draft needs work? (Point to three specific aspects of his/her draft that can be improved).

Step 5: In class the next day, students read one another’s feedback letters, discuss where necessary, and get to work revising their drafts.

When we return to class, the students take the first ten minutes or so to read their groupmates’ feedback letters and then post a summary letter to me, detailing the feedback they have received from their peers, posing questions, and devising a plan for revision. I then allocate the rest of the class period to a “work day” and sit down with as many students as possible to review their summary letters and discuss their revision plans.

I like this sequence for a number of reasons:

  1. On their own, students don’t usually take the time to review their work or read it aloud, a key strategy for catching sentence-level problems with their writing.
  2. Separating the peer workshop into two parts (in class and at home) forces students to take more time to consider their peers’ work (and by extension, their own).
  3. Writing feedback letters to their peers (and being graded on doing so) produces, I’ve found, more thoughtful responses than just off-the-cuff oral comments in the classroom.
  4. Because students’ feedback to one another is written down and because I have access to it, I can use their work to talk about how to give effective feedback, drawing on passages from sample letters to illustrate feedback that I feel is useful or not so useful.
  5. Following these steps BEFORE I look at a student’s draft ensures that by the time I sit down to look at drafts, everyone is doing the assignment I’ve given and not something else (I’ve found students to be pretty good in pointing out to one another when they have fundamentally missed the purpose of an assignment).

As I said above, this is my final post on peer review. What have learned? That it’s a complex process. I can see why faculty who do not think of themselves as writing teachers are reluctant to try out peer review workshops. At the same time, a psychology professor who participated in our annual Summer Seminar for the Teaching of Writing (SSTW) tried out peer review for, I believe, the first time last summer and now swears by the practice. Are there certain disciplines that lend themselves to this kind of work more than others? Are there certain personality types or teaching types? And is there any cold and hard data showing that peer review is effective at improving students’ writing? There is, perhaps, a good deal more to consider about this practice that so many of us take for granted.


Categories: Michael Michaud
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