Peer Review

Words of Wisdom

Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
Never use a long word where a short one will do.
If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
Never use the passive where you can use the active.
Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

— George Orwell

Responding to student writing or public speaking doesn't have to be an onerous task the instructor undertakes solo. Students can help each other and themselves through peer review (or peer critique) groups. Peer review groups, if set up carefully, can help students master writing and speaking skills, sharpen their editing and presentation skills, and become better editors and critics of their own work. Peer reviews can help at any stage of the writing process. More specifically, peers working together can:

  • brainstorm on topics and thesis sentences

  • develop content and sharpen arguments

  • consider how well the writer accommodates to an audience and communicates a purpose

  • revise a text or slides conform to the conventions of Edited American English or to the conventions of a given discourse type

  • check a text or presentation for organization, coherence, and readability

However, in order for peer groups to produce such results, they require careful and detailed guidance. Your job is to plan the task, set the parameters, and monitor group progress.

Planning the Task

You will have to make a number of preparations and decisions to set up an effective peer group:

A clearly described task. Students need a specific goal, such as answering open-ended questions or coming up with a written peer response or filling in a rubric. They won't do well, for the most part, with overly detailed worksheets, especially those that require "yes/no" answers. Worksheets only improve writing if you follow up and explicitly show how answering the questions relates to students' own writing problems. For example, asking students to identify their audience may be somewhat helpful, but only if students can also articulate how they are accommodating their writing (content, style) to that audience. Your aim should be to foster reflection that leads to revision.

A manageable task. Will students work on a draft? Help each other brainstorm or edit? Select a task that can be done in the time allotted and that requires specific but open-ended participation.

A formative goal. If feedback is evaluative (summative) and will not be used to guide revision, students will have less invested in performing well. In fact, they may decide to go easy on their peers, lest their evaluation negatively affect grades.

A policy for unprepared students. For example, if you have assigned that they bring a draft and a student comes with a mass of notes, you can have him or her work alone on the draft while others work together.

An optimal group size. Depending on the task, most students do best in groups of three to five. If they have 30 minutes to read and critique a long paper, the task has to be devised to allow enough time, and the group should probably be smaller. If one student is performing with the whole class assigned to review their delivery of a presentation, consider assigning only 5-7 groups to do a detailed review for each student; otherwise, the students get an overwhelming amount of feedback. Students not doing the detailed feedback can still write out a quick comment on what they liked or found confusing.

A method for assignment to groups. Students can be assigned randomly, assigned according to their abilities, or assigned according to the tasks they are performing. Or, they may be left to form their own groups. Group members may change from class to class or always stay the same. None of these methods is superior for every situation. Suit the assignment to the task, the class personality, your physical setup, and the syllabus.

A common language. At some point, either within groups or as a whole class, establish some basic critical terminology. Do students share your definition of good writing or a good speech? Do they know what you mean by style? grammar? logic? Even among professional writers and editors, the use of these terms and the standards people apply can vary considerably. It doesn't much matter if you provide the most standard notion--what matters most is that you and your students are on the same page.


Setting Up the Task

Students should be accountable for their drafts and for their critiques, so peer reviews should not be anonymous. Encourage students to listen attentively to critics and to make up their own minds about the justice of critical remarks. If critics are tactful, honest, and specific, students should be able to take criticism maturely and use it intelligently.

To establish agreement (calibration or norming). Ask groups of five to seven students to read the same sample paper, one representing the work you want them to do for their final product. Give them a rubric or tell them how you want to evaluate the work. Instruct them to be ready to justify their rating with specifics. (It would help if you review one or two paragraphs or another paper with the whole class, using these criteria yourself, or have them read about the criteria aloud before the process starts.) Make sure each group has appointed a spokesperson and secretary to take notes.

The group should come to consensus about the quality of the work (or agree to disagree). Give them about 20 minutes to review the work and complete the evaluation, then, at the end of 20 minutes, ask each group to report. As groups report, discuss their disagreements. Your aim is to give them a better understanding of your expectations and to provide some common standards, so try to reach at least partial consensus among the whole class.

When students respond to a presentation, calibration is also necessary. Do a speech yourself in class (or show one from a video such as those found at TED Talks). Have your students rate it using the rubric, then as a group discuss the ratings. For example, do they widely differ on their rating of organization? Why? Perhaps some prefer a specific organization but should be open to other possibilities.

Once calibration is done, students are ready to evaluate their peers.

To review drafts. Form groups of three to four students. Allow about 10 minutes per paper (for a five to eight page paper). Ask each student to read his/her own draft aloud (no exchanging papers for silent reading, which encourages passivity). As the student author reads, the student critics take notes of their impressions. They should try to identify of the paper's (1) strengths; and (2) weaknesses; and note (3) where they are confused or have questions. After the reading, the author must listen only, while the critics read back their notes. The author is not to respond--only to take his/her own notes. This keeps the process going quickly and prevents authors from becoming defensive. Authors should remember that critics can be wrong.

Written reviews. Written reviews in essay form give students another chance to practice critical reading, editing, and writing skills. Ask the critic to write in essay form (1) a descriptive summary of the essay (to show the writer if his or her basic message is getting across); (2) a specific listing of the essay's strengths and weaknesses, with support from the text; and (3) suggestions for improvement, also as specific as possible. Writing a critique requires a critical but professional stance as well as the marshaling of evidence to back up judgments. Written critiques have an added advantage, in that the writer being critiqued can be required to write back, responding to the criticism. Such an exercise pushes the student writer into seriously considering advice and taking responsibility for accepting or rejecting it. The writer cannot simply write "I agreed with all your comments and took all your advice."

Monitoring Group Progress

To monitor progress and make groups accountable, consider the following:

Ask for a group report. If the class is not too large, an oral report of two to three minutes is helpful because the whole class benefits from hearing each group's consensus. Reports can also be written. To maximize group interaction, don't ask each member to fill in a worksheet alone.

Forget grades. It is very difficult to judge the quality of work done in peer response groups. If students know they will get a grade, they may work too slowly to be of much help, or they may be nervous about giving advice. What you should do is encourage frank and honest collaborations.

Express your expectations. Ask for honest, tactful, and specific feedback. Define these terms and give examples of the sort of feedback you expect. Also make sure students understand that they are responsible for using their own judgment regarding reader responses to their work. Rather than say a paper is good, tell the writer its specific strengths. If it is interesting, quote some interesting passages or ideas. If it is lively, show some lively description. If it is logical, describe its argument.

Address students' concerns about their ability to help each other. Students often express doubt about their ability to critique one another's work in a useful way. They may point out that you are the ultimate arbiter (as the grader). You should point out that peer responses are not meant to be anything more than a way to help them view their work from a different perspective, with the help of someone who may know different things about their topic or about writing. It is their responsibility to develop a critical sense (and responding to their peer's work can help them do so) which allows them to decide what advice to take and what to reject.

Additional Resources

A Peer Response Demonstration

MIT video Peer Review in the Classroom: A Guide for Students

MIT video Peer Review in the Classroom: A Guide for Instructors

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