Incorporating Students’ Perspectives in the Design of Peer Review Activities

By Adam Loretto, Sara DeMartino, and Amanda Godley

In our previous post, we discussed students’ views of peer review: that, despite some potential pitfalls, it can be useful to hear from multiple perspectives and to have opportunities in both giving and receiving feedback to develop skills as writers with real audiences. In this post, we apply what we learned from students to help teachers design effective peer review experiences.

 

Potential Pitfall: The Feedback is Wrong or Unhelpful

Let’s get the big one out of the way first.  Sometimes the feedback students get from peers is not particularly helpful or just plain wrong.  One way for teachers to address this issue is to make sure that students receive feedback from multiple peers, at least three. We have found that although students might receive unhelpful or wrong feedback from one reviewer, the other feedback they receive is typically beneficial.

We suggest that teachers take time to explain to students the benefits of hearing from multiple perspectives:

  • Multiple readers helps the author gain awareness of how a real audience will read their piece,
  • One person may be more skilled in pointing out issues of content while another can spot issues of grammar and usage,
  • Contradictory feedback can be an opportunity, rather than a dilemma, enabling students to exercise authorial control and practice justifying writing decisions, and
  • Reading and reviewing multiple essays will help reviewers develop as writers.

Potential Pitfall: Reviewers Don’t Take the Task Seriously

Sometimes students experienced problems with peers not taking seriously the task of providing quality comments on their writing. To address student effort, the setup of the particular system we used can be illustrative.  The students we worked with submitted feedback through an online system called SWoRD and used pseudonyms to keep both their writing and feedback comments anonymous. SWoRD is a grant-funded research-focused product developed through the University of Pittsburgh’s Learning Research and Development Center, whose core functionality is also available commercially as Peerceptiv. (None of the authors of this post have a financial stake in Peerceptiv.) In SWoRD, when students look at the feedback comments on their writing, they provide a rating and comment on the feedback they received. That rating can be part of the overall task grade that students receive.  Some form of accountability for comments can drive student motivation on that aspect of peer review.

Potential Pitfall: The Feedback is Mean—or Too Nice

Students were quick to note that the review process would sometimes break down over comments that caused students to become defensive or hurt. Students need guidance in navigating the social side of commenting on a peer’s work.  Teachers can model effective critique, including helpful tone. In discussion, teachers and students can build norms for comments that provide useful feedback so that peers apply tact in reviewing and also learn to “hear” the desire to help embedded in comments. Teachers could employ a set of model comments that vary, humorously perhaps, in helpfulness and tone to help students build templates for effective comments.

Some reviewers wanted to be nice to their peers and shortchanged the writer’s ability to improve by not providing an explicit critique.  Because our research has shown us that students value social face-saving, even in activities like peer review, we have found it helpful to tell students that we understand that motivation but everyone benefits more when reviewers are honest about the strengths and needs of a paper–kind but honest.

Potential Pitfall: Students Don’t Use Their Peers’ Feedback to Revise

Teachers can help students learn to implement their feedback effectively.  The online system that we used in our studies included a step in which students planned for revisions based on the feedback they received. Our goal was to prompt students to think about how they would make specific revisions based on the peer review comments they received and prioritize those revisions to maximize their effectiveness. This can be done on a graphic organizer and can be included in the teacher’s assessment of the student’s writing and revision. As another benefit, intentional reflection and revision planning can help students sort through possible confusion from conflicting comments. Student writers can work to understand the point of view behind varied suggestions and develop writerly authority to justify why they would make one revision over another.

Tips for Teaching Effective Peer Review

Learning how to provide good feedback requires instruction and practice. To help students be confident in the quality of their feedback, we think it is helpful to see reviewing as a writing skill that requires instruction, just like planning or drafting. To encourage students to provide detailed, content-focused feedback and avoid focusing only on surface-level editing, we have used a number of successful approaches.  

  • Ask students to write their comments on a separate document, not their peer’s piece of writing. This practice discourages students from providing feedback that is limited to circling comma errors (for example) and encourages students to use meta-language about writing and elaborate on their feedback.  As students become more familiar with using writing-specific terms (i.e. transition, evidence, claim) and explaining the strengths and weaknesses they see in a paper, they learn to read as writers and provide more useful feedback.
  • Give students sample pieces of writing to respond to in pairs or groups and then compare the feedback they’ve written to help students develop their understanding of what helpful, accurate feedback looks like.
  • Design prompts that guide student reviewers into better reviewing habits.  For instance, we heard students complain that the feedback they received was 1) not specific enough to be useful and 2) not instructive about ways to fix the problems pointed out.  As is visible in the sample prompts below, we found that providing reminders for students to be specific in their comments, even when offering praise, and to offer a potential solution/suggestion along with any critiques helped students to include these features in their feedback. We have found that the phrasing “how well does the author…” leads to feedback that includes both specific compliments and constructive criticism:
  • Provide feedback on how well the author maintained focus on a main idea or argument throughout the essay.
  • How well did the author explain the textual evidence he or she provided? Be specific about how the writer could improve his or her explanations of textual evidence. Provide suggestions for improvements.
  • How strong is the evidence for each claim the author makes?
  • How well do the writing style and vocabulary in the paper fit what you expect for this kind of writing?

Peer review is a teaching tool with great promise to help students improve their writing through receiving feedback and through critically reading peers’ work.  It requires intentional planning and practice for teachers to help students attend carefully to the reviewing and make thoughtful choices about the feedback they receive. As teachers, we can convey the value of multiple perspectives, establish trust, provide clear feedback prompts, and mitigate social anxiety to make peer review a productive learning experience for all students.

Adam Loretto is an assistant professor in the Writing Program and English Department at Grove City College.  His research focuses on sponsorship in writing and writing processes.

Sara DeMartino is an English Language Arts Fellow at the Institute for Learning at the University of Pittsburgh.

Amanda Godley is a professor of English Education and Language, Literacy and Culture at the University of Pittsburgh. Her research focuses on classroom talk, dialect diversity, and writing instruction in high school English classrooms.

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Peer reviewed through the Writers Who Care blind peer-review process.

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