Too often, asking students to edit each other’s writing results in superficial commentary. Many students are uncertain about how to provide meaningful feedback on a peer’s work.
One way to make peer review more effective is by scaffolding it, or breaking down the practice into several classes where students critique each other’s work in a more focused, incremental manner. Scaffolding allows students to identify and address a single type of error in an allotted time period. While it is a valuable process for all students, it is especially useful for English-language learners and learning-support students, who benefit from breaking tasks and information into more manageable components.
Deconstruct Constructive Criticism
Students need to learn how to give and receive criticism in a productive and respectful manner. Before embarking on a class-wide peer review activity, teachers might underscore the importance of responses that are forthright and civil. Mastering the art of giving valuable feedback that doesn’t offend will benefit students in nearly every professional and personal relationship they maintain.
Start by breaking down the two words: constructive and criticism. What do these words mean by themselves? What synonyms might apply to each word? Ask students to think of examples of ways they might offer constructive criticism on a peer’s writing. They can be as simple as “Remember to capitalize proper nouns” or “Restate your thesis in your final paragraph.” Underscore to students that the criticism must be specific and helpful. “Good job!” doesn’t suffice. Write their responses on one or two poster boards, and place them where students can see them and refer back to them throughout the process.
Provide samples of criticism for students to emulate. You may want to advise learners to attach positive feedback with constructive criticism. For example, “Your hook poses a good question, but it contains several grammar errors” or “You inserted this quotation correctly.”
As there is no definitive guide to constructive criticism, teachers and students are encouraged to discuss what constitutes responsible feedback to find a definition and standards that best suit the class.
Set Clear Plans
In the same way that instruction often demands that educators create the assessment first, teachers should prepare for the peer review at the beginning of any writing assignment. A scaffolded peer review can be time-consuming, so consider the length of the writing assignment to be assessed when making a determination about the class time required.
Before assigning writing, consider what writing skills you want your students to learn, review, or practice. The objectives will vary by class, and they should be articulated to students from the outset. Some teachers may have the class focus on writing an effective thesis, incorporating quotations, or adding in-text citations. In other classes, the objective may be reviewing capitalization or comma usage. Identify the skills that students are expected to practice writing and finding in each other’s papers.
Facilitate the Process
Scaffolding the peer review provides an opportunity for students to read a piece multiple times to assess different elements of writing. First the class reviews the objective as a whole group. Then peer pairs review their individual writing with a focus on the defined learning objective.
Some students may be reluctant to criticize peers’ work. Consider choosing peer-review partners instead of letting the students pick. This might cut down on students’ being fearful of offending their friends. Also, if the debrief period is generating little discussion, ask students to debrief with their partners as opposed to in front of the class. Give students a set of debrief prompts to focus their discussion, such as “Discuss the corrections you made.”
Encourage students to refer to the posters regarding constructive criticism examples, especially if someone has given an impolite criticism.
Debrief as a Class
After the pair reviews, debrief by discussing the findings as a class. The debrief can be an open-ended session in which the teacher encourages students to ask questions and voice misunderstandings about both writing and critiquing. The debrief can also be more structured and incorporate specific questions, such as “What is a challenge an editor or peer reviewer might face?” or “What is one element of your writing you wish to improve upon?” The debrief can also take the form of a small writing assignment, such as a reflective paragraph on the peer review process in which students summarize what they have learned as an editor and proofreader.
We want our students to be proficient writers and thinkers. Reviewing a peer’s work can help young people better understand the often difficult process of writing by challenging them to adopt a dynamic new role as critic.