Peer Review in a Learning Community

Jim Beatty, Lecturer in English at Salt Lake Community College in Utah, describes a peer review activity that encourages his students to make relevant comments by giving them a safe environment in which to work. [PDF full version: Peer Review in a Learning Community]

One of the most exciting aspects of college composition pedagogy is the wide diversity of strategies that various instructors employ to engage students in learning effective communication and argumentation strategies. Within this diversity, peer review has long been a fundamental part of composition curriculum. Peer review promises a wide range of benefits for students and instructors. Students can better understand the assignment through seeing how their peers approach it. They can offer each other advice in areas on which the instructor cannot focus in class. Ideally, it reinforces a sense of the class as a learning community. It also can help instructors understand where students are when they pose questions about the feedback they receive from each other. Realizing these ideals is, of course, much harder in practice. When instructors tell students only to get into small groups, read each other’s papers, and provide feedback, they often feel they like do not gain much from the exercise. Many have a sincere desire to be supportive and not hurt anyone’s feelings with criticism. If they are unsure of their own writing or understanding of the assignment, they may feel unqualified to offer advice. Or, at worst, if they have a fundamental misunderstanding of the assignment, they may lead their peers in a counterproductive direction. Having faced frustration at the failure of my peer review practice for years, I have, in collaboration with several wonderful colleagues, developed a way to start the peer review process that avoids these pitfalls.

Part of my confidence in this method derives from student evaluations. Every semester since I adopted this practice, “peer review” is the most common “favorite thing about the class” on course evaluations. Students have told me that in past English classes, peer review seemed pointless. They often come away from peer review exercises, particularly in high school, with the sense that their job as a peer reviewer is to copy- edit other students’ papers. Beyond that, many feel they do not have the authority to comment on the substantive aspects of content. It is these ideas, arguments, use of examples, and use of evidence that most college-level composition instructors privilege in their grading practice far more than typos and commas—and rightly so. Giving them more directive peer review tasks empowers them to confidently offer advice on the areas that will have the greatest impact on final grades.

On the first day that a rough draft is due, I have students pass their drafts around in a circle. For each pass, I give them one specific aspect of emphasis for that assignment on which they comment. For example, I may ask them to offer advice only on the thesis, introduction, conclusion, counterargument, or use of sources. This directed, anonymous, and brief interaction between reviewer and text produces dynamic and useful ideas for revision in a way other methods are unable to do.

One significant area where students feel this empowerment is in the anonymity of the process. If the classroom allows for students to sit in a circle, I have them do so and pass their drafts to the right. If the classroom has long rows of tables, I have them pass papers in a snaking pattern towards the back, and I take the draft from the last person in the back up to the first person in the front each time. Then I will tell them to read through the entire draft but only comment on one rhetorical aspect I want to emphasize in the current unit, such as a thesis. I try to allow enough time for everyone in the class to finish commenting, which usually takes about ten minutes. I then have them pass again in the same direction for another ten-minute review, asking them only to comment on the effectiveness of another rhetorical element. Since drafts will vary in length and students read at different speeds, there is inevitably some down time between passes. This makes one of the more important days in the semester one of the more peaceful days, which both my students and I appreciate. When they get their papers back at the end of class, they have many comments without knowing who made them. Students have repeatedly told me they feel more comfortable being honest and direct with this anonymity. They also read—and sometimes respond to—comments from previous reviewers, creating a conversation about each concept. This produces results students feel confident in implementing.

Another way this practice makes students trust the results of the peer review process is through the directive nature of my instructions for each pass. With a more free-form method of peer review, many students express anxiety that they do not know what the instructor wants. I alert them that the directions for each pass are key to what will play the biggest roles in their final grades for the paper. I encourage them to note each rhetorical concept for when they revise. In addition, I often accompany each pass with a presentation. When emphasizing organization, I give a presentation on effective introductions, then have them evaluate the introduction for that pass. Then, I present methods for effective transitions and have students evaluate those. This peer review day ends with a presentation and evaluation of effective conclusions. Having students apply the principles I present immediately in evaluating each other’s work increases their understanding of the concepts.

It also gets them thinking about each concept in their own papers through comparison with what they are reading. Instead of seeing their writing as an isolated artifact shared between only them and me, they come to appreciate the power of a communal, dialogic model of effective writing.

This communal approach to composition is perhaps the greatest strength of this peer review model. It allows students to see far more examples of how other writers are approaching a common task than through other methods. In an 80-minute class, each student can see seven to nine different approaches to the task they are trying to navigate. I am explicit in encouraging them to think of each paper as a potential model for their own writing. They may see an effective introduction whose structure they could adapt to their own paper. I also warn them, however, that they may come across a negative model—a paper that misunderstands the assignment and provides an example of something they need to avoid. I also point out that a student may get contradictory advice from different reviewers.

But rather than these incongruities being a flaw in the system, I show students how they can open up critical theoretical understanding of effective communication. These divergences in understanding particularly open up crucial conversations about audience and strategies for drawing readers in while avoiding alienating them. When students take a comparative approach to their own writing, their papers benefit from an awareness of how they are situated within a larger discourse community.

This sense of the classroom as a learning community benefits students on a diverse number of levels. Students do not feel as if they are struggling in isolation. Rather, they know they have a support group where we are all working to help each individual succeed. As the semester progresses, they often become comfortable discussing course work with other students even when I am not specifically directing them to do so. This happens in an inspiring, organic manner in an Intermediate Composition class that I teach where students write all of their papers on a single topic. After the first papers, students already have some context on each writer and how their ideas are developing, which allows them to draw on this previous knowledge to offer advice. This prolonged engagement allows students to become invested in each other’s projects, which can allow them to look forward to rather than dread peer review days. They are often genuinely interested in seeing where their peers’ topics are taking them. This sometimes leads to a rare, inspiring situation when I don’t have to intervene at all. I can just observe high-energy conversations about writing between individuals and in small groups. At best, this peer review method leads to truly self-motivated learning and exploration.

I try to maintain the momentum of this excitement over collaborative exploration with other peer review activities after the “read and pass” day. I devote an entire class period to this first method, meaning I set aside an entire week for peer review. In subsequent classes, I first have students put a sentence up on the board for us to workshop as a class. This could be the thesis, opening or closing sentence, or an idea for counterargument. Since a good portion of the class has already seen the paper from which these sentences are taken, they are better equipped to offer advice immediately. I often have students encourage peers that need help with a thesis go up to the board. And since they are already used to having a conversation about each other’s ideas, they participate in a class-wide workshop more readily than they may otherwise. I also have them complete the more traditional method of peer review where they get into small groups and read papers they did not see on the first day. Here, I am still more directive, however, by asking them to focus on peer review questions from the book or on the grading criteria on my assignment sheet. These activities build on and reinforce the benefits of the “read and pass” exercise.

My multi-faceted approach to peer review engages students inevitably in practices and habits that facilitate a meaningful revision process. Both my students and I find it more rewarding than other, less directive peer-review activities. It brings a class together as a learning community, which enriches all activities we engage in together. In addition to making a productive peer review and revision process, this method enables my classes to work towards the ideal of an engaged, fully integrated, collaborative approach to learning. It instills in students habits for being self-directed, life-long leaners, which is a goal all composition pedagogies should aim to achieve.

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