Making Peer Review Work

Kirsten Jamsen, Writing Across the Curriculum

After many semesters using peer review in my own composition classes and helping colleagues in Geography, Women’s Studies, Political Science, Slavic, and Art use peer review successfully in their classes, I have several specific suggestions for instructors trying peer review for the first time or refining their own methods of using peer review.

Set realistic goals for peer review and explain them fully (and often) to students.

Before deciding to do peer review, it’s essential that you consider your pedagogical reasons for using it. After my first unsuccessful attempt at peer review, I realized that I could not expect my students to respond to each others’ papers as well as a trained instructor could. Rather than see peer review as a substitute for my comments, I now value peer review as a way to get students actively involved in their own learning. By having my students read their peers’ writing and talk together about the processes of drafting and revising, I want to encourage them to become more self-conscious about their own writing process and to begin to take control over that process.

The primary reason that students struggle with peer review is that they don’t understand what they are supposed to do and why they are doing it. If students don’t understand the purposes of peer review, they will see it as mere busy work. Before, during, and after peer review sessions, take time to explain your goals for peer review. My main goal for peer review is to emphasize to students that writing is fundamentally a form of communication between real people. Talking face-to-face about a paper can help writers articulate what they are trying to say in their papers. It is also a chance for real readers to tell writers what they’re hearing and what isn’t coming across clearly.

Just as important, I stress to students that peer review teaches them to be critical readers. As they learn to read their peers’ work with a “critical eye,” they can begin to apply that “eye” to their own drafts. In addition, reviewers can give each other encouragement and share new ideas and new strategies for writing.

Do peer review more than once.

Being able to read and respond to papers effectively takes practice. If you plan to do peer review, I strongly recommend that you do it more than once. With practice, students will learn how to give each other constructive feedback, and additional peer reviews will reward the initial investment you put into preparing your students for the first one.

Guide your students with central questions and focused tasks.

To help our students learn how to do peer review, we need to clearly explain what we want them to do. Often peer review doesn’t work because we give our students too many things to concern themselves with. Feeling uncertain about their ability to “teach” their peers anything about writing, peer reviewers will give up before they even begin. Giving students a few central questions or a brief set of guidelines will help them focus their responses to one another. I often ask reviewers to consider two central questions:

  • “What is the writer trying to say/argue for in this piece?”
  • “How can s/he make this argument more effective and persuasive?”

Help your students see the difference between revision and editing.

For most students, revising means editing. To prepare students for peer review, I lead a discussion on the differences between revision and editing, describing the large-scale changes they should suggest to one another: tightening up or shifting focus, clarifying purpose, cutting, adding, reorganizing, taking the conclusion as new introduction and starting over, etc. Until they’ve talked through large-scale issues, I outlaw discussion of grammar and mechanics, reminding students that it’s a waste of time to polish a sentence that you later decide you don’t need.

Encourage both honest responses and constructive advice.

I remind students to be “real readers” who tell the writer honestly what they are hearing as the main ideas, what they like, what confuses them, etc. To make the criticism constructive and positive, I outlaw “shoulding” on each other (“You should do this…”). Instead, I ask them to phrase their responses in “I” language (“I hear…, “ “I’m confused when…,” “I’d like to hear more about…,” etc.).

Give students a clear format for peer review and require written reviews (either a worksheet or a letter to the writer).

In many Communications-B and writing-intensive courses, you probably won’t have time for students to read drafts aloud in class. Instead, set a firm draft date to have groups exchange copies of drafts. Students then read the drafts and write reviews outside of class. To encourage students to take the reviewing process seriously, consider grading the reviews as a separate writing assignment. The following class period, have students discuss their reviews in small groups, making sure to give them clear guidelines on what you want them to discuss.

I write a procedure to follow on the board:

1) Divide time evenly between group members.

2) Writer of each piece presents main concerns (which may have changed after seeing other papers).

3) Each reader gives the writer an honest response to her/his piece, making sure to articulate what s/he thinks the writer’s main idea is (“mirroring”).

4) After writer’s purpose or thesis is clear, move into open discussion of questions and suggestions for the writer.

5) Writer sums up suggestions and tells group her/his plan for next draft.

I remind students that they have different roles. The writer keeps the group focused on her/his concerns and leads the discussion. Readers are honest and constructive, using questions to help the writer talk through her/his ideas.

Observe group work and coach students on becoming better reviewers and writers.

By observing how your students work in their groups and intervening to encourage careful listening and questioning, you can coach them to become better reviewers and writers. I recommend “hovering” around the groups to keep them on task. If the students are doing peer review for the first time, they will probably finish early and need to be prodded to spend more time on each paper. They may also be “too nice,” avoiding tough questions and honest responses. Talking afterwards about what the groups did well—sharing good written reviews and using a skilled group as a model—can help students improve as peer reviewers.

As teachers, we should remember that for the writer, often the very process of explaining his or her ideas to a peer group helps to clarify those ideas. In fact, research in composition studies has shown that such talk can help students to better develop their papers and better understand the genre in which they are writing.