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Words of Wisdom

Writing is the hardest work known to man that does not involve heavy lifting.

— Pete Hamill

Select to hear or see audio/video on this topicPeer response, sometimes called peer review or critique, is an opportunity for peers to provide commentary on each other’s work. It is NOT an exercise in proofreading, in which peers merely identify or correct each other’s errors. Instead, it’s designed to give an impression to consider when revising. Peer response allows students to mimic the review process used by professionals, who routinely ask others for feedback because they know they’re too close to their own work to analyze it impartially.

Students sometimes assume—wrongly—that other students can’t really help because they’re “only” students. But good responders don’t need to be experts. They just need to be honest, thoughtful readers or listeners. If you find out, for instance, that one of your classmates completely missed the point of your opening paragraph—even if he or she can’t pinpoint the exact reason (wordiness, a dangling modifier, imprecise pronouns, poor delivery) for the confusion—you know you need to consider revising that section. That’s valuable feedback.

Peer response also benefits the responders, who get to hone their skills as critical readers or listeners, which in turn makes them more astute reviewers of their own work.

Roles

The responder should focus on the “big picture” rather than worrying about correcting errors. The responder should think about whether the work:

  • meets the assignment requirements
  • has a clear purpose or goal
  • has a clear thesis or main point
  • stays on topic
  • makes a strong argument or clearly presents information
  • offers persuasive evidence or relevant information
  • has clear organization
  • uses a style suitable for the audience
  • is formatted correctly

Responders can write on the paper or speech notes, slides, or outline but should not rewrite. Their comments are essential, but they should be responders instead of editors or teachers. Responders don’t need to rewrite or rephrase but instead should focus on explaining their reactions.

Responders can point out strengths as well as weaknesses and should ask questions about anything that confuses them. For example, they can point out where they would like to see more details or evidence or where they felt most interested or engaged.

The writer (which includes the writer of a paper or a presentation) should be open-minded and not defensive. The writer should:

  • accept criticism and consider the responder’s comments. Responders know whether or not they understand something. If a responder says, “I don’t get it,” the writer should assume the problem might be the in the work itself.
  • provide the responder with all the information needed to give helpful feedback. It’s difficult to comment on an assignment if it’s unclear what the assignment entailed.
  • maintain ownership of the work. The work is the writer’s creation. What happens to it is the writer’s decision. While the writer should consider the responder’s comments respectfully, in the end, the writer must choose what is best.

Method

Effective peer response depends on respectful communication between the responder and the writer. Responders, remember to take the other person’s work seriously. Writers, remember to take the responder’s opinions seriously.

  1. Pair up with a partner. Identify one person to be the responder and the other to be the writer.
  2. The writer reads his or her own work out loud or delivers the presentation using slides, an outline or notes. The responder writes down his or her thoughts on a separate piece of paper without speaking. The responder should focus on high-order concerns such as the thesis, organization, the logic of the argument, and the tone of the paper. Grammar and small errors can wait. (Don’t skip the reading aloud, even if it makes you uncomfortable: saying your own words out loud can help you identify problems you’d miss when reading silently.)
  3. When the writer has finished, the responder gets 1-2 minutes to state his or her impressions out loud. The writer should not answer objections, explain, or ask questions, but simply listen attentively to the responder’s reactions, comments, and concerns. The responder should be tactful but honest and specific. The responder can also offer praise, as well as criticism.
  4. Now, the writer can speak. The pair should discuss the feedback and answer any questions or point out specific parts of the essay that were a problem. This cooperative period should last anywhere from 1-5 minutes, or longer if more discussion is needed.
  5. The writer and the responder should switch roles. Repeat steps 2-4.
  6. Once both partners have received feedback, they trade places. Both should read each other’s work silently to themselves looking for low-order concerns like spelling, punctuation, word choice, etc. If one partner notices a recurring or large problem in the other’s work (such as sentence fragments, poorly designed slides, or a pattern of misplaced commas), he or she should mention it and make suggestions about how to fix it.

The Four Be’s

Be tactful. No hurting people’s feelings. You can say what you need to without being harsh. Remember that people are not likely to listen or learn if they are worried about an attack or feeling bad about themselves.

Be honest. Don’t lie. Someone is coming to you for help. Don’t just read the paper, shrug, and say, “Yeah, it’s fine,” or “Looks good.”

Be specific. General comments like “You need to work on organization” are not helpful. Instead, describe where the problem is. Does the fourth paragraph seem random? Does the information in the body of the paper seem to wander away from the issue laid out in the thesis? Are you lost as to what the second paragraph is even about? Is the speaker going so fast you can’t follow? Clearly specify the problem and talk about potential ways to fix it.

Be yourself. Don’t try to be your instructor. Instead, respond as a peer—someone who has certain types and kinds of knowledge. You are uniquely positioned to contribute to your peer’s work, and to learn from what he or she has to say.



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