As a student, I dreaded peer review day. The process of trading feedback with a near-stranger was uncomfortable, and I rarely agreed with my reviewers. I knew what I meant, after all.
But as a writer and teacher, I understand the process a bit better, and I can see the value of a good review:
- At its best, a peer review provides a fresh perspective, revealing the gaps in your writing and thinking.
- You develop a better eye for editing and proofreading, and by helping other writers, you get acquainted with different writing styles and techniques.
- Depending on the format, the review adds an interactive element to the writing process, too, giving you a chance to defend your ideas in real time, or to have them confirmed by a peer (We all like positive feedback!).
It’s difficult to explain these ideas to my first-year writing students, though, so I often focus my energy on methods that teach them to give and receive feedback. I want them to learn how to ask for and receive the support they need as writers and how to offer constructive criticism to their peers. It’s arguably one of the most useful skills students can learn in a writing classroom — besides writing, of course.
So, throughout the semester, we experiment with different formats. I try to explain the logic behind the different methods, and I always model the different approaches (this is key). Here are a few formats I’ve tried that worked pretty well, plus one I don’t especially like.
We usually start with the traditional review format, where students exchange essays and write a few comments. This model is a good launchpad because it’s usually familiar, and it gives us a chance to talk about the feedback process.
Since students are often tentative about peer reviews, I provide a brief review guide with a list of prompts. In most cases, I encourage them to comment on the structure of a piece — thesis, paragraphs, main points — and leave the smaller grammar or punctuation problems for a later stage. This makes the review less stressful (they don’t have to fix anything), and it ensures everyone gets roughly the same kind of feedback, even if the quality varies.
Here’s a sample peer review guide (pdf) that covers assignment-level issues and the basic skeleton of an analysis essay. It also offers an opportunity for more substantive feedback at the end.
The elevator pitch is probably my favorite style because it forces students to really think about their arguments.
Instead of sharing their entire essays, students summarize their arguments in 2-3 minute pitches, which include some version of their theses, main points, and evidence. Then, working in groups of 3-4, they deliver their pitches and take questions from their peers. I sometimes show a clip from Shark Tank as an example (product pitches are similar enough), and I assign roles to each student in the group: writer, skeptic, and mirror.
The conversations are always lively, and since everyone has a part to play, students are more engaged in the process and they’re less afraid to ask questions and find flaws. If you’re playing the part of the skeptic, for example, you’re more likely to search for holes in the argument and to ask questions that help the writer clarify his or her meaning. If you’re playing the mirror role, your job is to take notes and help the writer and skeptic understand their key points, much like an interpreter.
In the end, each writer should leave with a few ways to improve his or her essay, plus some positive affirmations, too.
Here’s my version of the elevator pitch assignment (pdf), with instructions about the process.
A review letter is a long-form critique of an essay. It summarizes the essay’s key points, evaluates the essay against the assignment, and it analyzes the essay’s strengths and weaknesses. In short, it tells the writer what works and what doesn’t in his or her essay and provides a few ideas for improvement. This format works because it offers solutions (e.g., “find a new source to help explain this topic,” “say more about this specific point,” “include a quote here,” etc.).
I don’t use this format often because it’s demanding, but it is very useful for research papers or other long pieces of writing.
Here’s a sample review letter assignment sheet (pdf) from Michigan’s Sweetland Center for Writing.
The speed peer review is my least favorite style, but since it appears in many sample assignment lists, I decided to try it. It works best when students focus on only one piece of an essay, like the thesis, and when they are looking for something specific (e.g., Does the thesis respond to the prompt? Is it sufficiently detailed and explanatory? Are all the necessary parts in place?).
In a speed review, students bring to class print copies of their thesis statements. They trade papers with a classmate, who has three minutes to read and respond to the thesis; after three minutes, students trade papers again, and the process repeats until students have feedback from several people (or until an allotted time is up, usually 10–15 minutes). There is usually a follow-up task that asks students to evaluate the feedback they received and make edits, where possible.
With clear guidelines, a speed review might be productive, but I found it too narrow and limiting to be worthwhile.
What are your favorite peer review strategies?
- Conducting Writing Workshops and Collaborative Learning/Learning with Peers, Dartmouth College
- Using Peer Review to Improve Student Writing, University of Michigan
- Frame Your Feedback: Making Peer Review Work in Class, Faculty Focus