When it’s done well, peer review is extremely instrumental to students, but when it isn’t done well, it’s painful for everyone and possibly detrimental to their papers.
Too often, student feedback during the peer review process produces unspecific responses like “it’s good” or, even worse, incorrect grammatical corrections.
To get peer review right, teachers need to follow a few steps:
1. Embrace the benefits of peer review
Peer review gives students more than feedback on their texts. It also exposes them to their peers’ writing, which can help them understand which strategies work well and identify techniques to improve their writing. That ultimately helps them grow as writers.
Moreover, peer review provides an important check for students’ ability to meet assignment guidelines. Students tend to miss required parts of the assignment, so peer review helps them ensure they’ve met all the requirements.
Note, you’ll have to do some extra work to ensure that students focus their feedback on the correct aspects of the assignment. But this investment can produce stronger performance in the future.
2. Show students how to share ideal feedback
Students need specific guidance on the best way to provide feedback on each other’s texts. Encourage them to review feedback and rank the comments as bad, OK or helpful. When students know what sort of feedback is expected, it’s easier for them to come up with something more specific than “it looks good.”
3. Provide focused instructions
When developing a peer-review workshop, consider the essay requirements and use them to generate the questions to be asked in the review session. To get students even more invested in the process, ask them to help write the workshop questions.
Students can do a better job of dissecting finished essays if they base their questions on the assignment guidelines and grading criteria. Students can also help to write the rubric.
Involving students gives them ownership in the process and helps them feel they truly understand what teachers will be grading on.
4. Make students experts
Before the workshop, identify students’ strengths and the writing processes they excel at. Or, depending on the strength and maturity of the writers in the class, ask students to self-identify their strengths.
Next, ask each student to provide different feedback on different parts of the essay. For instance, teachers can put students into a group and ask each one to review a certain section of the essay. One student might review the thesis, another organization, another paragraph structure, and another might look at evidence and citation.
Ideally, each student will feel strong in the area they are reviewing and confident they can give their peers effective, constructive feedback.
5. Get students moving
In addition to making students experts, get them to move around the classroom. Sitting in one spot throughout the workshop can make students lose focus or get distracted. Provide specific areas or stations around the room where they can work on specific writing skills. Moving around helps students reset their focus and ensures they are taking breaks throughout the process.
6. Establish accountability
Sometimes students provide weak peer-review feedback because they feel that they can get away with it, or they don’t think revision is necessary to get a good grade. Fix this by providing points and grading the quality of the peer review, which gets students more invested in the process.
While you’re at it, make sure part of the final grade is based on the submission of a first draft and the quality of the revisions.
Peer review can be among the most useful feedback students receive on their writing. Giving and receiving feedback strengthens their writing, makes them better self-editors, and helps them learn from other students’ approaches to the same assignment. Building those crucial writing skills will pay off throughout their school careers.
Caitrin Blake has a BA in English and Sociology from the University of Vermont and a master’s degree in English literature from the University of Colorado Denver. She teaches composition at Arapahoe Community College.