During her graduate studies at The Ohio State University, Nicole Pizarro worked as both an English instructor and a consultant at the Center for the Study and Teaching of Writing’s Writing Center.
“In my teaching, I didn’t have time to help each student craft and edit their papers. But as a peer consultant, I could focus on a client’s writing and walk them through the revision process while providing comprehensive feedback. This work highlighted for me the benefits of peer-to-peer feedback in everyday writing instruction.”
It wasn’t long before Pizarro’s Writing Center experience influenced her teaching. In a second-year writing course, she used a CarmenCanvas discussion board to encourage students to actively reflect on each other’s writing styles and the bottlenecks they encountered when composing.
“We talked about what we valued in peer-to-peer feedback. For each assignment, students would use Carmen’s peer review tool and a set of guiding questions to provide feedback to each other. Weaving those interactions throughout the course fostered a classroom community where students could identify areas of improvement in their peers’ work as well as actively reflect on their own writing.”
Why peer review?
Feedback is essential to any writing task, especially in the workplace. Whether your students move on to academic careers or other professions, they must be comfortable with the practice of seeking feedback from colleagues. For example, active feedback is integral to the production of scholarly and business communications such as grant proposals, presentations, memos, technical guides, and reports. What’s more, many of the bottlenecks college students face with writing tasks can be addressed through peer review, which helps them further develop the writing skills they need to enter the workforce.
Unfortunately, peer review activities are not always successful, and many instructors avoid them altogether. Some common reasons for this:
- Instructors may believe it is unproductive to have students who encounter the same bottlenecks in their writing provide feedback to one another.
- Instructors may be hesitant or unable to commit the time and energy needed for effective peer review activities, which necessitate advance planning and active participation from students throughout the length of a writing assignment or even a whole course.
- Students may have difficulty differentiating between feedback and criticism, leading peer review activities to feel intimidating or unpleasant. Furthermore, students who are not confident in their own composition skills may be hesitant to “judge” their peers’ writing.
- Students may not see the point of peer review because they have been conditioned to value feedback only from their instructors.
Do any of these concerns hit home for you or your students? The good news is that while designing peer review activities may seem daunting, research suggests that effective peer review can enhance students’ writing education.
What the research says
Encouraging students to actively reflect on their own and their peers’ writing can have lasting effects on their development as writers. In Peer Review: Successful from the Start, Shelley Reid notes that peer review “broadens the audience to whom student writers are responsible,” reinforces “the idea that writing is the result of the writer’s choices—which can be controlled and modified,” and increases students’ “awareness of writing as a negotiation between the intent of the writer and the needs of the audience” (2008, para. 5-6). Similarly, WAC Clearinghouse contends that “peer review enhances students’ critical thinking skills as readers and writers... [and] fosters the collaborative awareness of peer readers and their needs” (n.d.).
Because of the varied ways peer review is implemented in higher ed, the research suggests that its effectiveness varies. Lundstrom and Baker (2009) identified three key benefits of peer review: students receive extra feedback, they have more language interactions, and they improve their own writing by providing feedback to others. However, they also found that the training students got on giving and receiving feedback influenced whether their writing improved overall or globally. “Students who revised student papers improved in specific areas of writing more so than those who only learned to use student feedback” (Lundstrom & Baker, 2009, p. 38). Other researchers have echoed the importance of providing “explicit training in both giving and receiving formative feedback” (Dressler, Chu, Crossman, & Hillman, 2019).
Ultimately, for a peer review activity to be successful, students must receive training or clear instructions regarding the expectations for the activity. Providing a rubric, working with students to establish criteria, and having open conversations about how to structure helpful feedback can all enhance the peer review process. Asao Inoue (2005) suggests that instructors implement community-based assessment pedagogies in which “students take control of the writing and assessment practices of the class” by contributing to the development of assignments and rubrics. Such methods support students to “evolve as writers, assessors, and theorizers of language” while structured opportunities to evaluate their own writing processes can turn them into “reflective, more self-conscious writers” (p. 210).
Research also demonstrates that students for whom English is a second language, sometimes called L2 students, can benefit from peer review activities. “Especially popular in L2 instruction, peer response has been shown to help students understand their own process of writing development by analyzing the writing of peers at similar stages in the process” (Anson & Anson, 2017, p. 14 ). Lundstrom and Baker (2009) found that peer review activities help English language learners improve their own writing by “transferring abilities they learn when reviewing peer texts” (p. 38 ). In other words, peer review activities allow English language learners to critically evaluate their own writing through evaluating their peers’ work.
Ultimately, peer review can help students improve their writing. But to maximize its benefits, students must be trained on how to provide effective feedback and what to do with the feedback they receive. Even if a final product doesn’t show significant improvement, peer review can influence students’ overall development as writers, spurring them to be more self-aware, reflective, and thoughtful about their writing choices and processes.
The following approaches can help you plan productive peer review activities for your course.
Provide students opportunities to reflect on their writing process. Encouraging students to reflect on their own writing processes helps you understand specific areas to address in their writing skills development so you can tailor your instruction. It also helps students set individual goals that their peers can use to provide meaningful, targeted feedback. When students consciously consider their strengths and areas for improvement, they are set up to be accountable in how they respond to the feedback they receive in those areas.
Ask students to write a paragraph explaining what their writing process looks like for a traditional paper. Ask guiding questions, such as:
- Do you enjoy writing? Why or why not?
- How do you brainstorm ideas?
- How do you organize your ideas before writing?
- What is a piece of writing you are most proud of? Why?
- What do you struggle with when working on a writing assignment?
Develop a questionnaire asking students to reflect on or rate their writing skills. Using the anonymous submission option when building your survey in Carmen can help students feel comfortable being honest about the bottlenecks they experience when writing.
Spend class time explaining the benefits of peer review and addressing students’ questions and concerns. We mentioned earlier some negative connotations that are often associated with peer review activities. Because many students share similar concerns, it is helpful to dedicate class time to openly discussing their prior experiences with peer review. Ask them to share what they find most valuable about peer feedback and what they want to gain from peer review activities. This is a good opportunity to explain the difference between feedback and criticism, as well as the benefits that understanding and practicing peer review can have on students’ writing.
Create a contract as a class to lay out key guidelines for peer review. Once you’ve discussed students’ experiences and concerns, you can dive into specific expectations and parameters for peer review. Together with students, create a peer review contract wherein key areas for development and feedback are highlighted. This contract can serve as a reminder of the difference between criticism and feedback, and how to provide useful feedback. Developing a community contract allows students to have control in the peer review process and tailor activities to their shared needs. Along these lines, you can also work with students to establish the specific criteria for the individual peer review activities you assign throughout the term.
Scaffold major assignments and implement feedback loops throughout their duration. In a First Year Writing course in Ohio State’s English department, students are expected to develop an academic paper analyzing a popular media text. This research paper is broken down into smaller writing tasks focused on specific skills: primary source analysis, annotated bibliography, secondary source integration, and analytical research. For each of those individual tasks, students perform peer reviews and follow up on feedback to make improvements to their drafts. The frequent feedback loops throughout the course help students actively reflect upon and develop their writing skills and become more comfortable providing and responding to feedback in the process.
Provide a detailed worksheet, checklist, or rubric for each peer review assignment. Students are often unsure how to evaluate peers’ writing and compose their review, so explicit guidance for them to reference during the process is crucial. Delineate clear areas for feedback or provide guiding questions, such as:
- In a few sentences, summarize your peer’s paper.
- What is the paper’s main argument? Is the argument clear and specific?
- Does the introduction establish the argument and provide an overview of the paper’s topic?
- Are the main points well organized? Are there any paragraphs that could be expanded, clarified, or re-ordered?
- Does the conclusion wrap up the paper by synthesizing ideas or suggesting new directions of thought?
- What were the writer’s most interesting or illuminating points?
- What questions do you still have after reading the paper? Did you find anything confusing?
- Does the author cite reliable sources? Do the sources support the paper’s argument?
It is also helpful to encourage students to pose specific questions about their papers that they would like their peer reviewers to consider.
For additional ideas for structuring peer review assignments, see the University of Alaska, Fairbanks’ extensive list of Peer Review Activities.
Guide students to reflect on each peer review activity and the feedback they received. After a peer review activity concludes, have students reflect on their peers’ feedback, revisit their work, and identify the revisions they plan to apply. This can be as simple as asking them to compose a paragraph or bulleted list outlining the changes that they want to make to their drafts. Prompting students to reflect on peer feedback throughout the duration of a project motivates them to see the revision process as ongoing.
Leverage university-supported technology to support your peer review activities. Carmen has a built-in peer review tool that can streamline the peer review process for you and your students. It facilitates students’ reviews and enables you to grade them, all in a centralized location. Learn more about using the Carmen peer review tool.
Integrating peer review activities in your course can support your students’ holistic development as writers. For peer review to be effective, you must train your students in how to provide feedback as well as how to respond to the feedback they receive. Setting up clear expectations and resources will go a long way toward making peer review a productive endeavor for all involved.
When designing peer review activities for your course:
Encourage students to actively reflect on their writing processes. This helps students better establish the kind of feedback they want from peers and consider how they will incorporate it into their revisions.
Provide opportunities for students to share their concerns and questions about peer review before conducting any activities.
Give students agency in peer review activities by creating a community-generated peer review contract and working together to establish criteria for peer review assignments.
Scaffold all major assignments and build multiple opportunities for peer feedback into the writing process.
Provide students with a detailed worksheet, checklist, or rubric to guide their evaluation of their peers’ writing.
Allow students to reflect on the feedback they received after a peer review and consider how they will incorporate it into their revisions.
Take advantage of university-supported tools like Carmen to streamline peer review activities.
- Anson, I.F., & Anson, C.M. (2017). Assessing peer and instructor response to writing: A corpus analysis from an expert survey. Assessing Writing, 33, 12-24. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.asw.2017.03.001
- Cho, K., Schunn, C.D., & Charney, D. (2006). Commenting on Writing: Typology and perceived helpfulness of comments from novice peer reviewers and subject matter experts. Written Communications, 23(3), 260-294. https://doi.org/10.1177/0741088306289261
- Inoue, A.B. (2005). Community-based assessment pedagogy. Assessing Writing, 9, 208-238. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.asw.2004.12.001
- Lundstrom, K. & Baker, W. (2009). To give is better than to receive: The benefits of peer review to the reviewer’s own writing. Journal of Second Language Writing, 18, 30-43. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jslw.2008.06.002
- Reid, E. S. (2006). Peer Review: Successful from the Start. The Teaching Professor, 20(8), 3.
- WAC Clearinghouse. (n.d.). How can I get the most out of peer review?. https://wac.colostate.edu/resources/wac/intro/peer/