by Nancy Vazquez
This article was re-published from our faculty newsletter, Writing Matters, Fall 2005.
An effective writing assignment encourages students to consider the needs of their readers. Students see writing differently when they know readers—actual people—will be sifting through their words to find meaning, information, or guidance.
Luckily, your students have a ready-made audience: each other. When students react to one another’s works, in a process known as peer response, it helps them become not only better writers, but also more judicious readers and thinkers.
Of course, students aren’t grammar pundits or subject matter experts; there are limits to what they can judge. But they do have experience as readers, and they often hold different views from their classmates. Those facts alone make them valuable commentators, especially when an instructor helps them keep their comments focused and specific.
To make peer response work for your class, consider the following:
Plan the logistics. Will students swap papers with one other student or several? Will they choose their peer readers or will you? Will they read texts aloud? Do they need to bring extra copies of their work? What happens to students who don’t bring their completed assignment? Settle these issues up front to avoid conflicts. Also consider having students write out their responses. While in-class discussions are a good starting point, students may make better use of their peers’ comments if they have a written copy to refer to. A simple checklist is fine for “yes or no” questions (“Are charts labeled properly?”) but ultimately students should be providing more in-depth analysis.
Give them practice. Bring a sample piece of writing—perhaps from a former student who’s given permission—and respond to it together. A “B” level paper works well, since it’s effective without being intimidating. Point out features appropriate to writing in your discipline. Is first person acceptable? What kind of supporting evidence is required? How are visual elements incorporated? Help students develop a vocabulary for discussing writing.
Give them direction. When it’s your students’ turn to evaluate each other’s work, make sure they have a few specific criteria (and only a few) to consider. Possible questions might be: Does the introduction set up the paper? What’s the thesis and is it supported? Are charts or illustrations used effectively? Did the author apply a theory correctly? Did he or she adequately defend a point of view discussed in class? What you don’t want is students saying, “The paper is good. I liked it.”
Set the tone. Don’t let a peer response session degenerate into a free-for-all where students feel vulnerable or defensive. To set a positive tone, have students pinpoint strengths. Questions might include: What’s the most convincing evidence? Where did you feel most engaged by this piece? Which ideas are worth further exploration? What’s one thing you wouldn’t change?
Keep it short. Consider having students exchange only part of an assignment, particularly for a longer project. They might review only the project proposal or an introductory paragraph with an outline of supporting material. Have them brainstorm ideas for the rest of the paper.
Look to the future. Remember: students are reading drafts. Encourage them to suggest revisions: What three things can the author do to improve this paper? Which section warrants further research? Which ideas need more connection? Or, if students are looking at partial papers, have them suggest evidence the author might use to defend a position or consider what should be mentioned in the conclusion.
Limit the “fixing.” Students may assume they need to proofread their classmates’ papers for errors. Because they’re exchanging drafts, proofreading is probably premature; there’s little value in correcting punctuation in a sentence that may get cut entirely from the final text. One option: have students point out only those surface errors that appear repeatedly or that interfere with the author’s meaning.
Simplify. Not convinced peer response is worth the effort? Borrow a technique from writing expert Peter Elbow: have students exchange papers and read them—no commenting required. Elbow believes that alone will help students begin to think of themselves as writers—with readers waiting to hear what they have to say.