For your students, peer review can be a profitable experience, but it can also seem frightening and even useless. When administering peer review in your class, the more planning you do before the peer review session, the more likely the session will prove useful to your students. Before you begin to think about the details of the session itself, you should consider the psychological hurdles your students will face as they prepare for peer review. These hurdles include:
Lack of confidence in their classmates’ abilities to provide constructive and useful feedback on their papers.
Before you administer any peer review, it is essential that you remind your students of the reasons you are asking them to complete an activity that, in all likelihood, will seem useless to them. Effective rhetoric relies on attention to audience, awareness of audience, and respect for an audience’s context. So, in order for your students to appreciate the peer review experience, they must understand that, if nothing else, peer review presents their work to several audience members. No matter how skilled or unskilled the reviewers may seem in the mind of the student presenting his/her paper for review, these reviewers are—through their involvement in your course, their education until now, and their other life experiences—readers capable of having an opinion on the paper’s argument and purpose. While the reviewers’ depth of understanding of the writing process and the topic at hand may not equal yours as the instructor—and, more importantly, as the grader—their opinions provide the author points to consider, even if these points do not lead to specific revision. Of course, you are the evaluator who matters in regard to grades, but each reviewers’ reading of the paper offers another opportunity to witness the paper from a different angle, even one that you, as instructor, may be incapable of.
To further alleviate these anxieties, instructors commonly create peer review sheets with specific prompts, so that reviewers are directed in their evaluation and feedback. These prompts can be as detailed or as general as you like: What is the thesis statement or main argument of the paper? Does the paper support the thesis statement? Do the support paragraphs follow the organization stated or hinted at in the opening paragraph and/or thesis statement? Does the author use effective topic sentences for each supporting paragraph? Does the conclusion adequately summarize the argument and support and effectively close the paper? You may also provide a checklist of, again, basic and/or complex material: grammatical concerns (passive voice, sentence fragments, agreement issues), source citation, proper quotation use and format, etc. If you do not wish to be so directive, you might have students provide their own prompts for reviewers at the beginning of a peer review session. Have students come to class with three concerns they have for their own papers. This allows students to direct reviewers toward the parts of their paper about which they, as authors, are most concerned.
Lack of confidence in their ability to review their classmates’ papers.
This concern is generally addressed by addressing the first. Students’ confidence in their peers should be reciprocal if the above considerations are made. They should understand that, aside from the knowledge they have learned daily in your class, their own experiences and education recommend them as good audience members. They should know that their opinion, whether the author chooses to take their advice or not, provides another angle for the author to consider. Again, worksheets with prompts, or author directives, can further alleviate the anxiety caused by having to evaluate another classmate’s work.
Lack of confidence in their own writing.
In many ways, this is what any writing class should aim to alleviate. But while students’ confidence may waver when they think about you, their instructor, reading their papers, their fear of embarrassment is even greater when they think about their classmates reading their papers. Unfortunately, there is no foolproof solution to this problem. Poor student writers will feel intimidated by their classmates who are better writers. Quiet students who do not voice their opinions or assert themselves in daily class discussions are not likely to be enthusiastic about revealing their papers and their writing style to their classmates. You must reassure students of the usefulness and necessity of peer review, the need for them to get their writing “out there” in front of as many eyes as possible in order to make it better. Of course, you should also make it clear to students that they should not put anything into their papers that they would not want a larger audience to read.
Methods of Peer Review
Written Peer Response
Many instructors find written peer response useful in offering their students thorough feedback while also further legitimizing the process of peer review. Written peer response involves each student writing a 1-3 page critical response for each paper reviewed. These responses may take many forms, including bulleted lists, letters from the peer reviewer to the author, response essays, revision plans or blueprints, etc. These responses may provide thorough criticisms and suggestions for improvement of content and mechanics, or they can be more focused. You may choose to have each peer reviewer focus only on content, only on mechanics, or on more specific tasks such as support for the thesis and/or proper documentation. You may even choose to have one student per group be responsible for specific issues that then become the focus of their written comments for each essay. This means that each student, for his or her paper, receives from their peer review group a written critique of their mechanics, a critique of their argument and their paper’s focus, and a critique of their support and documentation. You may choose to be as thorough or as general as you see fit, given the level and ability of your student peer reviewers.
Showcasing is a more complex and thorough form of peer review typically used in RHE 309S and RHE 310. It can, however, also be employed in RHE 309K. Showcasing aims to put a single student and his/her writing front and center in order for the class to engage, as a whole, with this student. Showcasing calls for a student to submit his/her paper to each student in the class, through web-post, e-mail, hard copy, or through you as instructor. Each student will have read the paper under review prior to the class session designated for the showcase. In class, the student will read the paper aloud. Then, the student will take questions and comments from the class and you. The organization of this oral evaluation is completely up to you. You may want to take time specifically for grammatical and mechanical issues and follow with conceptual issues, support, clarity of argument, and organization, or you may simply allow the class to take the discussion where they see fit.
You may be more directive and assign tasks to specific groups of students. Some instructors divide students into groups of four or five (in a 20+ student class) and assign a rotation of “line editing” and “macro editing.” Line editing refers to a meticulous attention to the mechanical and grammatical aspects of each line of a paper. Macro editing refers to attention to the larger conceptual issues of a paper, its focus, its argument, its support, its organization, etc. For each showcase, one group is assigned to line edit a paper, another to macro edit a paper. These two groups then lead discussion of the paper during the showcase and provide their own commentary. The rest of the class is responsible for reading the paper and should be prepared to offer further feedback. Such organization for showcasing creates an efficient and focused session.
Time is a consideration for showcasing. Sustained attention to students’ papers offers them an excellent opportunity to understand and improve their own writing. But because of this sustained attention, showcasing takes up a lot of class time. It is impossible to showcase each student’s paper for every assignment. Instructors usually do one of two things: (1) they choose one assignment and set aside a block of class sessions in which to perform showcases for each student, (2) or they build showcases into class throughout the semester corresponding to the papers being written at that particular time. Students then sign up on the calendar for the time and specific paper they wish to have showcased. Students typically receive 20-30 minutes for their showcase, so two showcases can be performed in a class, or you may choose to have one showcase and then proceed with other instructional material.
The following links offer samples of various forms of peer review.