As we have discussed elsewhere on this website, it is important to help our students understand the process of writing in college. Many students begin their college education without any specific experience with academic writing and might, unless guided through a productive process, never completely fulfill their potential in any given class. While their final research paper remains an important communication between the professor and the individual student, students in general can learn much from reading and discussing their colleagues’ writing and receiving feedback on their own ideas. Utilizing a process of peer review will engage students in discussing what constitutes good writing in their peers’ papers, and thereby often help them work more productively with their own writing.
It might initially seem that engaging in repeated sessions, during which students work together, will take time away from the learning, studying, and discussion of content. However, using class time to let students work with their own and each other’s writing is in essence engaging with the content of the class by way of dialogue about their own ideas and thinking on the subject. Adopting some system of peer review is likely to lead to more insightful and better-written papers.
Peer review can work in the classroom in many different ways and on many different levels, from the earliest idea-generating phase to the final revisions phase of a long research paper. Below are some ways that having students work with each other can help better both the writing and the critical thinking that takes place in your classroom.
- The importance of modeling cannot be overstated. Often students will have no clear idea of what a solid academic paper looks like in terms of argument, clear thesis progression, critical analysis, paraphrase, and not least the use of citation and sources. It might be helpful to show the students a paper that would, or has, earned an A or A- in the class (or a previous class). Moreover, rather than simply showing the paper it is a good idea to have the students work with the paper. There are obviously multiple ways for doing this; one would be to have the students, individually or in pairs, write a detailed description of the paper. Ask the students to find the thesis, the paper’s main argument progression, its main sources, and its style of citation. Then ask them to give an evaluation of the paper. What works? What does not work? What would they have done differently? What are its strengths and its weaknesses?
- Another way to use this exercise is to have students in groups work with a number of papers three to five, perhaps that have received different grades in a previous class for a similar assignment. Going over the questions outlined above, students will discuss the papers, rank them, and assess their strengths and weaknesses. This focuses the students’ attention on the qualities of writing in academia while also offering them models to follow for their own work. Furthermore it allows instructors to clarify their own criteria for good writing in a practical sense. Modeling exercises such as these make the abstract goal of writing an academic paper into something concrete that can be discussed, analyzed, and followed. An exercise like this could be most useful if done fairly early in the semester to ensure that the information had time to become incorporated in the student’s writing process and vocabulary. Presented early in the semester, it can also be referred to when questions of writing appear in class discussions.
- As the students start gathering information for their final research projects (or other larger thesis driven writing projects), it might be a good idea to turn to peer review again. If the students bring their thesis statement to class, they can be divided into groups to work with each other’s ideas. In each group the students would write down what they believe the thesis statement of a given paper is, fold the paper down to hide what they have just written and hand it on to the next group member, who will then also write what the thesis is. At the end of the exercise each student will have five different interpretations of what their thesis is. This exercise would lead to a discussion within each group of how the thesis statements can become more focused, interesting, and complex. When using peer review at this stage of the writing process students should be encouraged to focus on the content and the solidity of the argument instead of the eloquence with which it is stated. The specific formulation can be modified in future classes according to the instructor’s experience.
- As the writing process progresses, peer review be it in larger groups or in pairs can also be incorporated as students go through multiple drafts. Before engaging in a process of peer review it is important for the professor to specify exactly what the students are expected to achieve in the process and verbalize these expectations for the students. The sessions should have a clear structure, and the sessions tend to work best if the students are asked to conduct the review answering specific questions.
Writing expert John C. Bean lists two specific techniques for peer review; Response-Centered Reviews and Advice-Centered Reviews. These achieve different goals and demand different tasks of the students.
- The philosophy of the response-centered review is that a student will observe a discussion of the paper without engaging in it. By reading the paper aloud for a group of 3 peers and following their discussion of the paper, based on criteria supplied by the professor, the student will gain new insight into the paper. Often students will learn a lot about their paper simply be suddenly having to read it aloud. After reading the paper aloud the writer will observe a discussion of the paper and simply take notes. By not having the opportunity to speak the writer will not have the chance to become defensive about the paper, and it is the sole responsibility of the writer to implement the comments. Some of the comments will be contradictory, but then again real writing receives contradictory comments from real readers.
- The advice-centered review focuses more directly on revision of the paper at hand. Bean suggests dividing the class into pairs. Each pair will swap papers with another group following which the pair will write a guided response to the other pair’s papers. This is obviously a somewhat time-consuming process so papers, particularly if they are longer first drafts, could be exchanged the night before class. In this process of peer review the students should be asked to focus on specific elements in the draft and be asked to supply specific examples as a basis for their praise or criticism.
For more information on the two review processes see Bean, pp. 222-25.
- Source: John C. Bean, Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001), Chapter 13.