Peer Reviews Work: Observations and Reflections

3 students working on a laptop


Rachel Mazique

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As we approach the end of the long academic year and my students prepare their first draft of their final paper for peer review, I thought it would be fitting to reflect on the pedagogical practice of peer reviews in a writing course.

First off, let me say that my colleague in the Department of Rhetoric and Writing, Cate Blouke, convinced me last semester to make the switch to digital submissions of writing assignments. To reduce the paper load I had to carry, I asked students to share their essays with me via NoodleBib’s sharing tool (which relies on GoogleDocs). At times, students had difficulty sharing their papers via this tool, so I also made BlackBoard digital submissions an option. Checking for student assignments in two different web-based software programs required a bit of extra work on my part, but because I believe in democratic, student-centered classroom practices, I was willing to provide options as we made the switch from paper to digital submissions.

This spring, consolidating all of my classroom instructions, resources, and student work into one place (with the PBWorks wiki system) was a breath of fresh air. At the beginning, a few students had a bit of anxiety about using the online workspace; none of them had used a wiki before. One student even wrote (in an observation on her learning processes) that she found digital submissions to be “less personal” and "a bit confusing." But, a few weeks later, this same student wrote that it was easier to navigate the wiki and that she could do so "without problems." 

A handful of students have run into a few glitches here and there (during heavy uploading traffic times), but the PBWorks support team has been helpful whenever these issues come up. And, as another student put it, "The wiki kinda grew on me. It saves paper :-D." So even though some students felt "apprehensive about using the wiki on a daily basis," these same students concluded at the midterm, "I can see how helpful technology, such as the wiki and other resources, are to the writing and reflection process. I actually like this way of organization much better, because it is efficient and fast." I fully agree and am a huge fan of the wiki.

I even have to make one final plug for digital submissions and contest a comment Ms. Blouke makes in her discussion of some of the pitfalls of digital submissions, "No system is entirely perfect. Digital submission means that I can't generally grade papers on the bus," and admit that I actually do take out my laptop on bus rides and comment on student papers. Once papers are all on the wiki, I simply need to download them and create a folder devoted to comments on that particular writing assignment. The rest of the work is done offline, and I do not need to be “plugged-in” until it’s time to upload my comments to their “Teacher Comments” folder. In fact, I plan on reading papers while in the air during my travels this weekend.

Now that I’m done plugging for digital submissions and the PBworks wiki system, I’ll go into how peer reviews work via the wiki during in-class review sessions. At the start of the semester, I envisioned that students would provide comments on papers digitally—much like I do with their papers. However, before the first review session, students were very vocal about having hard copies to work with as well. So, that has been our practice. And, as fellow bloggers Blouke and Jay Voss have pointed out, this preference is clearly an uncommon one. So, in my class, I require both. Students ask for printed copies, and they get what they want for those peer reviews. Here’s the rationale for requiring that these first drafts be uploaded to the wiki as well:

 I can check to see whether they completed a full first draft:

Last semester, students learned that I was not going to read their first drafts for peer reviews, so I started to notice a trend of very “unfinished” first drafts, which did not help them or their reviewers. Reviewers were unable to answer all the questions I set out for them to respond to when their partners only had a page or two of their paper completed.

Students can more easily include specific examples in their feedback:

Since the peer review prompts students to be as specific as possible (e.g. if you’re confused, which part is confusing?; or locate and transcribe the main claim; give examples of where you see your peer explaining how arguments intersect/differ, and so on), rather than transcribing all of the examples that they want to refer to, students can download their peer’s paper from the wiki and simply copy/paste the relevant sections.

Increased sense of online collaboration and interaction:

Because I give student work high security restrictions on the wiki (only the writer and I can see that student’s work), peer review is the one time when students can peer into and access their partners’ work on the wiki. I grant assigned peer groups security privileges (but only to their peer group’s papers—and only for that particular paper). They are then able to type up a review and reflect on the paper copy and use the electronic copy as needed. Also, if a student is absent on peer review day, they already have access to the paper via the wiki, and I do not need to ask certain students to email their paper to their absent partners (this was an issue on several occasions last semester but hasn’t occurred this semester as this group has perfect attendance on peer review days!) The peer review process requires online collaboration because students usually do not finish their reviews during class time; they can use the wiki or BlackBoard to email their reviews to their partners. I also ask that they post their reviews on the wiki so I may see what kind of responses they had. Last, for multimodal compositions, electronic submissions are the only kind that make sense. For their final paper of the semester, I’ve encouraged students to showcase their understanding of visual and spoken rhetoric and incorporate a variety of multimedia evidence—whether podcast recordings of interviews they conducted, images they found or took themselves, or links to video sources that display authoritative testimonies.

And, since I use The Learning Record as my method of assessing student learning processes, I have the privilege of sharing evidence of the purposefulness and helpfulness of peer reviews from the students themselves. As part of the Learning Record, students make observations about their learning; I encourage observations that are relevant to our five course goals, or course strands, but otherwise, students are free to make observations on any topic on a self-imposed timeline (although they do have a minimum of fourteen observations to make throughout the semester). These observations are analyzed as data of how their learning progressed over time. In commenting on their observations, I focus on the content and not the grammar, so in the direct quotes below, I’ve kept the original errors and will refrain from pointing them all out with the [sic] reference.

One student wrote after the peer review session:

"For starters I didn't really know what to think of my experience with peer editing.  I like the idea of having your peer proofread, make suggestions, etc. However, I don't think I got as much out of it because my peer didn't give me any critical things I needed to change or work on. It was mostly just what I was doing right, which of course I admire, but I know my paper is far from perfect.  I found Ms. Mazique's suggestions very helpful though.  There were some things I knew after being in class I knew  I had to revise, but she gave me other feedback of things I had not thought of that were insightful.  I hope to implement the revision goals to end up with a splendid 1.2 paper!"

However, around the midterm, and after the second peer review session, this same student observed:

"I think this is crucial to the writing process for not only the person we are evaluating but for ourselves. I know that reading and evaluating my peers' papers it enhanced my own paper. The reason for this is because everyone has different writing styles and techniques and when I would read some of the other papers I realized my paper lacked in some areas where theirs was more in depth.  It made me look at my paper in a whole new way because of the feedback I was given and also the feedback I gave them."

A second student, who is not a native English speaker, has shown much improvement in his writing over the course of the semester. He made this observation after the second peer review session:

"For this assignment I review [my group partners'] paper. I felt like if I were Rachel for a second. I tried my best to correct their papers, and I also focused on their erros. I used my experience learned from my mistakes and applied it to their papers. I also used what I have learned from Rachel's comments. This assignment helped me realize how much I have learn."

I found this comment especially poignant after attending a Peer Review Workshop that presented research on how and why peer review works.

Susan Schorn, of the School of Undergraduate Studies, provides consultation work to instructors and faculty who teach writing-intensive courses (across a variety of departments). She shared research that confirms what I have experienced with my students.

For example, her presentation noted that Lundstrom and Baker (2009) found that students who gave feedback improved their writing more than those who only received peer feedback. Students with the poorest writing skills improved the most. Considering the improvement of the second student above and his strategy in providing feedback (trying to think like the teacher and recalling feedback he had received from me in the past), I would say that he relied on critical thinking skills in order to complete his peer reviews.

And, although research shows that peer reviews benefit those with the weakest writing skills the most, one of my best students--a student who already has a Bachelor's degree and is in my class only as a pre-requisite for a medical school program (that he's already been accepted to)--has also made an observation about the peer review process:

"While reviewing [my partner's] paper I found it very surprising how many errors in each others papers we were able to find in a single reading.  I found [his] comments very helpful and insightful, and I think I was also able to point out some sentences in [his] writing that could be clearer with a little revision.  It's amazing what another set of eyes can find."

A couple of other students made observations about how the peer review process made them think about writing style. For example, one student wrote,

"While analyzing and editing the writing of my partner, I learned many things about my own writing.  I learned how my writing style differs and how I can better my own writing.  Changing my word choice and syntax will help me explain my thoughts more efficiently and ultimately make me a better writer."

These comments align with other research that Schorn presented at the workshop with faculty from the English Department, the Department of Theatre, and the Department of Rhetoric. Schorn cited Monroe and Troia (2006) as finding that when students collaobarote their standards become higher. They are better able to assess their own writing.

We thus have evidence from multiple sources that peer review works when done well. One point that really stuck out to me was that peer review is an academic form of “peer pressure” (Schorn) that helps students take the instructor’s comments more seriously. After receiving feedback from peers, they are less able to rationalize that the feedback they receive from their teacher is just from someone who “doesn’t understand them,” or who is just another “really picky teacher.”

I’ll leave you with some other pertinent thoughts/options for peer review and links/suggestions for further reading in case you ever need a resource to justify your pedagogical practice of peer reviews!

Options for Peer Review formats:

  1. Response-centered (doesn't rely on grammatical expertise)

--E.g. “I was confused when…” “This doesn’t make sense…” “I really like”)

   2. Advice-centered (recommending specific changes)

--Sometimes detrimental when students give poor advice, or the wrong advice, or do not know what to say so they make something up

  3. Ask students to do either or both

For further reading:

Check out the School of Undergraduate Studies' page on "Peer Feedback," which is a resource in and of itself, but also cites references to published books and articles on peer review.


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