Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Prompting Effective Peer Review: When Less is More

by Steffanie Triller Fry 

When filling out their course evaluations for School for New Learning writing courses, students regularly rave about peer review. Next to written feedback from instructors, students report that feedback from their peers is one of the best aspects of the course.  

However, course evaluations also show that while many students adore peer review, there are always a few students each quarter who simply abhor it. One of my students in a recent Writing to Competence course went so far as to write a persuasive problem-solution letter that explained why SNL, as an open-enrollment college, should ban peer review from its classrooms. Her primary criticism was that since adult SNL students “move at their own pace,”(DePaul University) and since many incoming students struggle with proper English mechanics, then students who take SNL courses are not well equipped to “pass judgment” on one another’s work. She admitted that she felt the feedback that she gave to her classmates was inadequate.

This same student, however, appreciated small, targeted peer review activities. She enjoyed offering one of her sentences up to her classmates for rewrites. She enjoyed peer review that was minimal, specific, and prompted. She did not like peer review that dealt with her paper as a whole, but she did like peer review that functioned more like an individual assignment: reverse outline one of your classmates’ paragraphs; rewrite one sentence that a classmate is struggling with; identify the thesis statement and topic sentences in this paper.

Composition scholar Nancy Sommers has explained that, when revising, students struggle to manage the “whole essay.” Though they may have tools and strategies for managing and revising words, phrases, and sentences, they find themselves unable to look at global revisions, such as overall essay organization and coherence with the main idea (383). It stands to reason that if students struggle to recognize the necessary global revisions in their own work, then they also struggle to suggest these revisions in the work of their classmates. So, peer review can leave a student feeling inadequate and unfulfilled, as it did to my student who usually provided a few grammar comments on her classmates’ essays and called it a day.

To combat these feelings of inadequacy and teach students to provide targeted and effective peer reviews, instructors should provide prompts for peer review that offer a specialized and directed focus.  Eli Review has designed a module full of just such prompts complete with the rationale behind them. This module is called “Designing Effective Reviews.” It suggests that we assign students “smaller, swifter reviews” focused on “specific, granular goals” (McLeod, Hart-Davidson, and Grabill).  

At the end of the day, peer review is just another assignment that students complete. They do not arrive in our classes any more prepared to complete peer review than they are prepared to complete any other assignment. And as with any assignment, the more we break peer review down into its component parts, the more useful students will find it. Teaching students how to review others’ work by prompting them with small, specific tasks gives them the confidence and the language that they need in order to serve as effective readers of their classmates’ work.  

As managers and employees themselves, many SNL students already conduct evaluations of employees and are evaluated regularly by their employers. “Inside and out of the classroom, offering helpful feedback is an important leadership skill. Teachers, consultants, and managers spend much of their day offering feedback to help others learn and thrive in their work” (McLeod, Hart-Davidson, and Grabill). As instructors, it becomes our job to break down this task for students and to give them the skills that they need in order to become effective leaders in their own right, both within the classroom and without.

It turns out that my Writing to Competence student who detested peer review was wonderful at revising her own work. From draft to draft, her essays grew in style and specificity. They became less writer-centered and more reader-centered. The same was true of her peer review group-mates: even the ones who sometimes struggled with word order and word choice wrote more readable and more elegant final drafts. I like to think that, even if she didn’t realize it, peer review did have an impact on my student’s work after all.

For more help teaching writing in any course, consider enrolling in SNL's professional development course, Teaching with Writing in Any Course. The 6-module course is taught completely online and the next section begins on April 13, 2015. Email snlwriting@depaul.edu to register.

Works Cited

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