With midterms in the rear-view mirror and final projects just around the corner, you might be thinking about how to move students toward the finish line in May. After spring break, there are just six weeks left in the school year! But those six weeks allow plenty of time to help students craft a substantial, dynamic, illustrative final project that will show how much they’ve learned.
Peer review — a process by which students give feedback on each other’s writing, presentations, or projects for the purpose of encouraging revision — can offer a great opportunity for students to take a step toward an in-progress final project. Not only can this help students to avoid leaving all of their work to the last minute, peer review can help you to model expectations for the final project, to allay student anxieties, and depending on your field, to model a “real” feedback process.
At the CTL, we’ve recently gotten some good questions about structuring effective peer review so that students (1) want to do it, (2) find it useful, and (3) take it seriously. Here’s a roundup of some of the research-supported advice that we’ve been discussing in faculty consultations.
Preparing your class for a peer review
Like with group projects, some peer review can be poorly structured. Students might come into the process thinking that it’s going to be a waste of their time.
Also, students often aren’t incentivized to think of writing, presentation preparation, or project cycles as iterative. Standardized testing often encourages students to “dump” out their ideas in two hours, and to never return to them again.
Furthermore, as research shows, student ideas about “revision” often differ significantly from the ideas of professional writers and academics.
For these reasons, in order for the exercise of peer review to be worthwhile and for students to take it seriously, it’s important to help students adopt a process-based mentality and to understand the purpose of giving and receiving feedback. Here are a few resources that can help with this.
This oldie-but-goodie academic article reports differences in how students approach revision, and how professional writers approach it. In short, students tend to think of revision as making word-level changes, and professional writers generally approach revision far more structurally: changing words, of course, but mostly focusing on big ideas and organizational shifts. When students inadequately revise, it’s often because they don’t know what “revision” actually means to their professor or how to approach it.
To teach this piece, I have previously asked students to read a short excerpt, and then in class, to categorize the statements in this Google Doc as something that a less experienced writer likely said, or something that a more experienced writer likely said.
We use this as a springboard into a discussion about the questions and previously held assumptions that they may have about writing and revision. What were our associations with the word “revision” before reading this piece? How long does a polished piece of writing typically take to produce? What does that process typically look like for more experienced writers? In what ways does testing prepare us for writing situations that we will encounter in the world? In what ways does it force us to adopt bad ideas about writing?
Through this reading and this discussion exercise, I hope to highlight a few things. First, that revision isn’t a punishment for “bad” writers: it’s an indispensable part of the writing process. And secondly, that producing a piece of polished writing requires the skill of learning revision. Peer review can be part of that process.
Models of peer review in your field
One thing that I like to do when I’m teaching a class with a specific content goal (for example, an Introduction to Literary Studies class) is to talk to students about how peer review happens in the “real world.”
Literature scholars review each others’ work in scholarly journals, in formal reviews of books, and in conference Q&As, for example, so we’ll spend some class time talking about what that process actually looks like and how the peer review that we’re doing in their undergraduate class draws on those models.
We might also spend some time thinking about the flaws and limitations of peer review. This piece in The New Republic (web link) can give students a sense that the same things that happen in their classroom that happen in professional scientific communities (i.e. conflicting feedback from multiple reviewers, feedback that comes from people who don’t have enough experience with their topic, feedback that is perfunctory). Being honest about this stuff gives students a sense that giving review is a skill that will transcend your specific class and context: that while imperfect, it is ubiquitous in the kinds of communities that students may want to join after college.
This article tracks gains in writing fluency in a second-language writing classroom at the college level, and finds that peer review had more benefits for the givers of the review than it did for the recipients.
Using this piece can help to remind students that even if the advice that they get from other people isn’t very good, the process of giving feedback has its own merits.
Activities for conducting a peer review
The articles and activities in this section give step-by-step instructions for conducting a peer review, including what kinds of questions that you could ask students to answer about each other’s work.
This article offers some specific suggestions and activity ideas for introducing students to peer review. From modeling how to conduct a review by giving students a piece of your own writing, to giving an idea of the kinds of questions that can encourage a more thorough and thoughtful response, this piece is loaded with strategies and techniques.
This step-by-step guide is great for peer review in classes where students are making an argument, giving a persuasive speech, or otherwise building a project that doesn’t have a “right” and “wrong” answer. In it, the philosopher Daniel Dennett outlines a four-part process that invites students to move away from pointing to the strengths and weaknesses of a piece of work (or merely trying to poke holes in the argument) and toward articulating what they think that it’s saying, what they’ve learned, and points of potential agreement before offering criticism.
Sometimes, for students who are not used to conducting peer review or are afraid of offending their classmates, specific instructions can be useful (i.e. “Put a star by the author’s main claims” vs. “Give three strengths and three weaknesses”). This sample peer review worksheet models these specific questions. It might be a good idea to ask students to first mark up an (anonymized!) piece of writing from last year’s class using this worksheet, and then in class, to have student compare what they marked in pairs, or as a whole class. If you don’t have a piece of writing from last year’s class consider making one up, or even allowing students to look at a piece of your own writing that is similar to what you’re asking them to do.
Developed by a professor of visual arts for MFA students, this critique menu gives students the opportunity to communicate to their classmates about what kind of critique that they would prefer to receive. In this model, the professor also allows the reviewed student to decide on which course policies should be in effect on the day of their review, what they will agree to do before the critique, and specific ways in which they would like for classmates to engage with their work.
At the beginning of the semester, this instructor also gives students a sense of different kinds of possible feedback (these are linked in the final page of this doc), and the student selects which kind of feedback that they would like to receive based on where they are in their own process, and based on what kind of feedback they prefer. This allows students to get the kind of feedback that they’re looking for (some students want nothing but harsh criticism, some students want some encouragement, some students want a mixture), while also putting some of the agency on the students for being prepared.
Please come by the Center for Teaching and Learning if you’d like to discuss structuring a peer review activity for your class.
We wish you and your students lots of luck on final projects!