Incorporating Peer Response

At MIT, the use of students to respond to each other’s work in progress is long standing. Robert Valentine in a 1903 Technology Review article described undergraduates in engineering responding to the writing of their classmates. What Valentine supported then is certainly true today: responding to the work of peers is essential in the process of learning to be a professional. Nevertheless, resistance to incorporating peer response often comes from adherence to several myths that surround this practice:

Myth: Student peer review is “the blind leading the blind”
One question behind this myth is, “How can my students offer effective feedback when they have little control of their own writing or speaking?” The assumption here is that students need to be expert communicators and to share that expertise in the process of offering feedback. Well, one of the most powerful effects of peer review is the way it helps the reviewers articulate what they see or don’t see happening in another student’s text. That language of review then has the opportunity to loop back into the reviewer’s own writing or speaking, ultimately strengthening that work. In other words, through this process students are learning how to articulate and apply the criteria for successful writing.

Myth: Student peer review wastes class time
Many students (and faculty) have unfortunately had the experience of peer review sessions that were unstructured and time consuming. However, if students are offered structured and focused opportunities to review each other’s work, time will be used efficiently. Often out-of-class preparation is key here: students might read drafts outside of class, and, even more important, writers/speakers will offer specific questions that they want answered in response to their drafts. In-class peer review does take time, particularly with large classes, but it is usually time well spent.

Myth: Student peer review will devolve into error correction
Another common experience for students is to feel that in peer review their role is to be the “grammar police” and mark up peer’s drafts in the same manner that they’ve had drafts marked up by instructors. Certainly, if the focus for a particular peer-review session is on the mechanics of writing or editing, error correction might be appropriate. However, structure is again key here–students need specific focus and guidelines on how to respond, as well as models of effective response.
Students will surely have access to each other’s work through the process of peer review, and that access might offer opportunities for plagiarism. However, students also have access outside of class, and combating plagiarism involves far more than limiting students’ opportunities to see what someone else’s draft paper or talk says (for more on plagiarism, see ). Instead, students need the opportunity to develop their ideas in the midst of a scholarly community, just as professional academics do. From this experience, students might have the opportunity to be inspired by someone else’s approach or argument or analysis, just as reading the literature in one’s field can offer inspiration for new ideas.

Myth: Students are too hard on each other and might be mean
Once again, students offer peer review based on previous experiences and the guidelines (or lack thereof) under which they’re operating. By offering models, guidelines, and specific focus, instructors can easily discuss what separates constructive feedback from mean-spiritedness. Studies have shown, in fact, that students tend to offer many more positive comments to their peers than do instructors.

Myth: Students are too easy on each other and might validate poor work
Without clear focus or guidelines, students can easily fall back on “Well, I liked it,” and nothing more as their response to a peer. But by engaging in structured and focused peer review, students will learn the language of response, and, in particular, learn from their instructors what experienced professionals will focus on and expect in the writing and speaking of other professional. Interestingly, the same studies that show that students are more positive in their response to student writing also show that students revise more extensively in response to positive comments.

No One Writes Alone: Peer Review in the Classroom

The Value of Peer Response in CI Subjects

Why should you consider using peer response?
Research has shown that peer response offers students many pedagogical benefits:

  • Highlights the social dimension of writing and makes the audience that students are trying to persuade a tangible group rather than an imagined construction.
  • Allows students to see other possibilities for developing the kind of writing they’re producing.
  • Recasts response to student writing as a generative aid to idea development that’s common in all disciplines, rather than simply as evaluation and “correction.”
  • Helps students to understand that critical feedback (both peer and instructor) is not merely personal and idiosyncratic, but stems from socially shared conventions of knowledge production and persuasion.
  • Allows students practice in acting as an authority on those shared conventions—in identifying and articulating what they are and how they function. Thus, it makes implicit learning explicit.
  • Gives students practice in the kinds of oral interaction around developing ideas, the kinds of intellectual give and take between scholars, that is common in all disciplines.
  • Leads to deeper understanding and higher order learning.

How would it work into the already tight syllabus?
Peer response can take a variety of forms:

  • Students can respond to each others’ papers in groups of 3 or 4 students, inside or outside of class, with or without direct instructor supervision.
  • Students can be prepared for responding with assignment-specific guidelines, which require student action and response (see examples).
  • Students can work through a small number of papers collectively, in a whole-class workshop.
  • Students can respond to each others’ writing through an online format, perhaps using the Forum function of Stellar, or through file sharing, such as through Google Docs.

When is the best time to incorporate peer response?
Peer response can work at various stages of the process:

  • When the paper is returned, before a required revision.
  • Between stages of a longer research paper.
  • With shorter response papers, focused on developing the ideas more fully, perhaps into longer assignments.
  • A few days before a paper is due, with a requirement that students share a complete draft.