Peer Review Done Right
A high school English teacher discusses how he improved the peer review process in his classroom after early attempts came up short.
Having students participate in a peer review can be an extremely rewarding endeavor, but English teachers often run into issues during the process. Students may not feel comfortable or confident enough to provide feedback. Sometimes students are overwhelmed because their partners’ work has too many problems. Whatever the case, there are ways to make the experience valuable for the students who are reviewing their peers’ work and for those getting their work reviewed.
There are lots of tools teacher can use to conduct the peer review, even if class time is limited. Digital sharing can be a great, useful homework assignment. Tools like Turnitin.com and Google Docs are good options for completing a peer review at home, but so is old-school printing and exchanging paper copies.
The benefits for teachers of infusing lessons with peer review include incorporating lessons in working with others and in giving and reviewing feedback, helping students improve their final products, teaching about audience in the writing process, and practicing grammar, just to name a few. But problems arise in the traditional process that many teachers use.
The peer review process that I made the mistake of planning early on as a teacher looked a lot like the one I had experienced as a student: I paired students up or they picked their partners. I gave them some questions to answer or some tasks to complete, like underlining the thesis, finding exemplary sentences, noting areas of confusion, fixing grammatical errors, etc. When the pair finished the exercise, they would discuss their comments.
This process seemed to work at the time, but after talking with students, I learned that it hadn’t really worked all that well. Unhelpful comments like “good job” were mixed in with a comma added here or there, but the exercise ultimately didn’t move the final product as far as I had hoped.
When I talked it over with my students, they gave me feedback like this:
- “My partner’s essay was so much better than mine was that I didn’t feel like I could even help her.”
- “I didn’t want to hurt my partner’s feelings.”
- “There were so many mistakes, I didn’t know where to start.”
Improving the Peer Review Process
This feedback prompted me to examine the process more closely and involve students in remaking the peer review exercise. I tried to remove some of the barriers that prevented the process from working the way I wanted it to by incorporating the following ideas.
1. Scaffolding matters: I used more student-produced samples to look at as a class. Using exemplars and examples gave the students models to compare their own writing to, and it gave them a venue for examining what constructive feedback looked like compared to the unhelpful feedback they were used to providing or receiving.
Additionally, I used samples from students in other sections of the same course (anonymously, of course) or student samples from prior years’ assignments, which gave my students the language necessary to discuss areas of strength in their peers’ work and areas in need of improvement. This common language was a necessary prerequisite that I thought my students already had when I was starting out.
2. A narrow approach is valuable: To help students focus and alleviate their fears of inadequacy, I limited their roles in helping their peers by asking them respond to one area of a partner’s work. Focusing in on one area helped them feel less overwhelmed and more confident in their ability to identify and help fix a problem in their partner’s essay.
During initial peer review sessions, I directed the class to look at one particular area (e.g., introductions) and modeled the types of questions good writers ask their editors. The more developed our language became in discussing writing, the more freedom I gave the pairs to choose which area to examine and critique.
3. Fostering a culture of constructive criticism: Additionally, I needed to address the concern of hurting someone’s feelings. I accomplished this, at least in part, by doing class peer reviews. I also strove to create an environment where criticism was embraced. How did I do that? I worked to demonstrate to my students that the writing process is something of value and that in real life we all need the help of others to make ourselves better. Fixing this problem really evolved into creating a classroom climate that accepted faults and imperfection.
4. Timing is everything: Lastly, peer reviews are typically done before the assignment is due. Unfortunately, this tells students that the writing process is over when an assignment is turned in. I added subsequent peer reviews to revisit the same assignment with the same or different partners the day the assignment is due and again after it’s been graded. Why? Because the writing process is never over, and improving products that have been graded is an opportunity for students to see peer and teacher feedback can be used to drive their improvement and growth.