Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Year in Review...

As the end of the year draws nigh, reflect on some of the year’s best articles on writing with “The 19 Most Popular Articles on Writing of 2012" from Writer's Digest The articles will address your most burning questions on writing, including “Snuck vs. Sneaked” and “50 Questions to Consider When Writing a Novel.” Happy holidays and happy writing!

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

For the love of peer review

By Katie Wozniak

Peer review in the classroom has its benefits and challenges. On the one hand, peer review can serve as a reciprocal teaching tool, giving students the opportunity to recognize, understand, and improve elements and issues in their own writing and in their peers’ while developing audience awareness and strategies for self-directed learning. On the other hand, peer review can go awry if students only edit for grammar and mechanics, when they do not know enough about a particular writing strategy or rule to provide their peers with a constructive review, or when the instructor does not provide sufficient guidance and support in the process. Additionally, in my experience, students don’t seem to embrace or recognize the potential of peer review; in many cases, I’ve seen students willing to sacrifice all or part of their participation grade to avoid peer review or ignore their peers’ feedback and go straight to mine when revising.

When piloting our first hybrid version of Academic Writing for Adults last quarter, I struggled with these issues, and I also struggled with whether to have students conduct peer review online or face-to-face. Students met face-to-face alternating weeks (except the first two sessions, which were both face-to-face), wrote drafts and received my feedback every week, and were varied in their proficiency with higher- and lower-order writing concerns. So, like with any teaching experience, I had to consider timing, pace, and each student’s prior experience, technological capability, and independent learning skills. I also wanted to consider what the literature said about “what works” in online versus on-ground learning environments. Ellis (2011) conducted a comprehensive study of paper vs. digital peer review in writing courses and found that students who conducted peer review face-to-face on paper tended to look mostly at surface-level issues, while students who conducted peer review online (via an online blog) tended to look at higher-order concerns and provide higher quality comments.

When working through this dilemma, I also reflected on the peer review practice in our current online-only and face-to-face-only offerings of this course. By default in our online-only version of Academic Writing for Adults, we have students conduct peer review in the discussion board by posting their drafts and answering guiding questions about their peers’ papers in paragraph form in discussion threads. When I teach the face-to-face version, I have students switch papers with two of their peers and give them about 30-45 minutes to read and discuss their thoughts using guiding questions. I have not noticed a huge difference in peer review quality, student interest, or students' use of their peers’ comments when revising between online and on-ground courses. Generally speaking, though, it has seemed that students in the online course spend more time carefully reading and writing their comments in response to their peers’ papers than students in the face-to-face course. This is most likely due to the fact that face-to-face peer review can feel somewhat rushed and spontaneous, especially since students are limited to the amount of time available during the course session to both read the essays and come up with a constructive review. They also are limited by pen and paper, often scribbling in the margins in short phrases and abbreviations.

Based on the literature and from my experience with what works and doesn’t work in the online and face-to-face versions of the same course, I structured the hybrid course peer review so that students conducted comprehensive peer review as homework using our online discussion board along with a set of guiding questions to help them focus on specific elements of writing in each other’s drafts. I also asked students to first do a full read-through of their peers’ papers without commenting at all, and then go back and do a second read-through using Microsoft Word’s Insert Comments feature (as I do when I provide feedback on their writing) to point to specific places in their peers’ papers to answer the guided peer review questions. While they worked on their peer reviews, I also provided my feedback on their drafts so they would have all the feedback for a draft by the next time we met in class. Then, when we met as a class face-to-face, we discussed our encounters during peer review. I made sure to stress that the students “owned” their papers and were the final decision-makers when using the feedback from both me and their peers to revise.

When I asked students to debrief me on their experiences at the end of the course, students stated that the peer review was one of their favorite parts of the course. In fact, students often completed their peer review four or five days before the deadline. This has rarely happened in my seven years of teaching. And I don’t think I have ever heard students use the words “love” and “peer review” in the same sentence.

I’ve mulled over this for a month or so, trying to come up with reasons why this particular class had such a strong “love of peer review”. Here’s what I have so far:

First, the process of providing feedback with the Insert Comment tool and using the guiding questions was one that I modeled in my own feedback to students. Perhaps students had more confidence in applying the process independently after being exposed to how I responded to their papers as an audience member using the same questions and tool. In some cases, I began to notice students using phrases and patterns in their peer reviews that I used in my feedback to them (even my favorite punctuation, the em dash), such as “What would you think about X here?” or “I’m not sure I follow this—can you explain more?”. Our feedback to students is sometimes the only writing they see from the “expert”, so perhaps after enough exposure to my feedback, they instinctively (or intentionally) began to use it as a model.

Second, learning how to use the Insert Comment tool is easy. Only one of my students had used it before; the rest picked it up after I did a 60-second demonstration in class (and seemed very amazed that it was right there in front of their faces all these years of writing papers in Word). This tool also makes the feedback process much more efficient, effective, and “friendly” for the purposes of peer review. It not only takes away the time-consuming task of handwriting comments in the margins or between lines, it also supports the in-situ conversational response process we naturally experience in our minds when reading down the page. Additionally, the “comment bubble” is a symbol of thought and communication, not correction (that’s saved for Track Changes). Peer review gone wrong, as when a student crosses out an entire paragraph on her peer’s paper, can lead to feelings of intrusion and defensiveness on the receiver’s part. Something about the thought bubble seems to reduce the chances of this happening when reviewing in a digital environment.

Finally, our class was small (four students, all women), and a strong sense of trust, accountability, and intimacy immediately developed in the first two weeks of the course. I feel these factors are key for peer review--it takes a lot of courage to overcome the feelings of vulnerability that sharing one’s writing entails. I always work hard at establishing a sense of community in the classroom, and this course was no exception. I chose to make the first two sessions face-to-face, and I started the first session with an interview-your-neighbor-and-report-to-the-class activity to which I purposely devoted at least 60 minutes of class time. Additionally, all writing assignments in the course asked students to tie in their personal experience in some way, so peers got to know a lot about each other, find commonalities, and learn new things about themselves and others. However, I can’t say with 100% confidence that these factors are why these students seemed to develop trust and community and loved peer review—it also could have been that the peer review itself brought them together and gave them a peek into each other’s worlds.

There are probably a dozen confounding factors that would make this case impossible to repeat and would contradict my speculations for why peer review was so strong in this pilot. Nevertheless, I do encourage other educators using peer review in their classroom to tinker with modeling, tools, and community-building in their classrooms—and perhaps the love will grow there, too.


Ellis, J.M. (2011). Peer feedback on writing: Is on-line actually better than on-paper? Journal of Academic Language & Learning, Vol. 5, No. 1.

Seeking: Excellent Writers

Did you receive any impressive student papers this year? If so, please encourage your student(s) to submit their paper(s) to the annual SNL Writing Showcase. Each spring, SNL Writing recognizes excellent submissions at the Spring awards luncheon. To view last year's winning entries and to download this year's application, please direct interested students to:

Monday, December 3, 2012

SNL Welcomes New Writing Instructor, Kamilah Cummings

I am honored to join DePaul and SNL. I cannot believe that had a former colleague not forwarded me an email announcing the position for a writing instructor at SNL, I probably would have never heard of the school. Yet, I cannot think of a better place for me to be at this stage of my career.

I have always been intrigued by the power of communication regardless of the medium, and I believe that writing is one of the most powerful ways to communicate. After graduating from Columbia College with a bachelor’s degree in Arts, Entertainment and Media Management, I began entertainment writing for a variety of publications and clients. I continued to work as an editor and writer for a number of years moving from entertainment writing to investigative writing and everything between. Because of this, I decided to return to school where I received a master’s degree in journalism from Roosevelt University.
While earning my degree, I taught for the Chicago Public Schools, primarily at Morgan Park High School. I fell in love with the possibilities for learning and communicating that teaching offered, but felt constrained by the rigor of CPS teaching. Therefore, after earning my degree from Roosevelt, I began teaching college writing.  I have taught college writing I and II, critical thinking, and developmental writing courses at a variety of schools in non-profit and for-profit settings including East-West University, Saint Xavier University, Morton College, and University of Phoenix Online. Through my experiences at these diverse institutions, I have come to enjoy teaching nontraditional students. I find that these students inspire me and constantly reignite my passion for teaching.
Prior to joining SNL, I was as a full-time English instructor at Westwood College for four and half years. One of the things that most excites me about SNL following my experience at Westwood is the focus on student learning and faculty development. The goals of the school appear to be focused on providing students with a quality, transformational educational experience that will benefit them beyond the classroom. My teaching philosophy is guided by that principle, so I could not be happier to join a group of faculty and administrators who share this belief.
When Dean Alicea quoted bell hooks during my interview and stated that she believed in “an ethic of care” in teaching, I knew that SNL was where I belonged. Having come from what felt like a quantity-over-quality, sweatshop approach to education, it is refreshing to return to the type of educational philosophy that I benefitted from throughout my years of education.