Thursday, July 31, 2008

Peer review

A standard practice in many, perhaps most, first-year writing courses is peer review. As Hanson and Vogt say of peer editing, “It is appropriate for students in a writing class to be involved in the process of peer editing since editing is so important a part of good writing” (577) (1).

As with most teaching strategies, you do not have to abandon your trusted peer review practices in online instruction. In fact, you may find ways to enhance peer review with electronic tools.

Online peer review can be as easy as asking two students to exchange documents and reviews via email. You would just need to provide students with access to each other's emails, whether that is the email embedded within your course management system or students' standard email accounts. You can follow the process by having them cc you on their interactions. You could post or email a list of partners; I often just alphabetically match students:A reviews B, B reviews C... Z reviews A.

But things can be more interesting. Using your course management group/team functions, you can put groups of students--maybe four--together and have them work as a peer review group, maybe throughout the entire term. These peer review groups require everyone involved to write and read carefully--exactly what we want in a writing class. You could match them up with different partners within the group, or you could have one student on the "hot seat" while the other three take turns critiquing. Most CMSs allow you to have private groups, so this can be a space within the larger classroom.

Using message boards, you can also ask a whole class to critique a few drafts, meaning you'll have more reviews than drafts. This creates an interesting writing situation; I require subsequent reviewers to not only critique the draft but to account for previous reviews in doing so, thus building a chain of either consensus or productively contradictory messages. You could do this type of review via wiki or blog software.

Software tools can help you as well. Waypoint is one. This is a tool I helped design (as a member of Subjective Metrics, Inc.). Waypoint is Web-based rubric software that allows you to create peer reviews in which students have access to a rubric similar to the one you use for grading; this allows them to "see behind the curtain" and understand how their own writing will be evaluated. They "grade" their colleagues based on specific criteria, and they also write comments to elaborate on their choices (see

You could also use a white board with or without audio to allow students to post drafts and receive comments. This resembles the kind of workshop some might use in f2f classes, and you can explore means of using that whiteboard space, chat, or voice technology to replicate that experience.

As the teacher, I do not mind inserting myself into the dialogue and helping reinforce some of the better points while steering the student away from the vacuous "great job!" comment or the comment that is off track.

Regardless of how you conduct peer review, you will want to to follow a few straightforward guidelines:
  • Provide crystal clear instructions. Don’t allow students just to respond to whether they "liked" a piece or not. Focus them on specific details: What is the main idea? Was the essay persuasive? What sources would help the writer?
  • Create a length requirement. By creating a simple length requirement, I have changed my peer reviews. They are chunkier and more substantive, all because I have asked students to write 125 or 250 words or whatever. They now have some baseline.
  • Don’t allow an “answer the question” approach. In providing guidelines, be careful to remind students not to simply provide answers to a list of questions.
  • Make it clear you want a critic, not a cheerleader. If not, some students will default to the comment, “This paper is great! All you need to do is __,” with the blank being filled by something superficial like spelling or punctuation.
  • Provide a clear genre for the comments. Do you want a letter? A brief paper? A memo? I like the memo, which is useful for the transmittal of documents. Regardless, make sure students know how you want the review to look.
  • Grade the reviews. They peer review itself should be a solid piece of writing that is graded on the informal scale in the course. If you give the peer reviews a grade, you reinforce their importance. Don't be shy about critiquing the reviews--you can do so without being mean-spirited.
As I mentioned above with Waypoint, one thing that can arise from your use of reviews is that you can provide students with the grading guidelines/rubric that you will use. This can be an empowering moment for them, and at least as valuable as the feedback they provide to their colleague.

1) In Theresa Enos, ed., A Sourcebook for Basic Writing Teachers.


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