Conducting peer review
One of the core activities in a writing class is the peer review. It is a low-stress activity intended to help students improve their drafts without the instructor having to grade every paper twice, and it’s incredibly easy to plan and implement.
For students, there are distinct advantages. First, it enforces the idea of writing a first draft. Students will notoriously wait until the last minute to write a paper, and therefore turn in the first draft as the final copy. I have had many students insist that they have done fine with it in other classes, and that may well fly in high school, especially in courses in which the writing itself isn’t being graded. However, in no good writing class will a first draft ever look like A-quality work.
Second, it encourages actual revision. When a student hears from a classmate, “Hey, I don’t think this works. This doesn’t make sense,” they’re much more likely to recognize necessary global changes and take the time to fix it than when they receive a hastily scribbled red-pen comment like: “Awkward.” All too frequently, students take the minuscule grammatical corrections listed on a draft and ignore every other comment, somehow thinking that’s going to be enough.
Third, it eases the impact of the comments. When a student hears from a classmate that something doesn’t make sense, it’s coming from a peer who (ideally) has that student’s best interests in mind. They’re also likely to try to frame it nicely, because they have the time in class to discuss it in person. When I am grading a paper, I don’t have the time or energy to be nice about things when I have 100 other papers to grade, so I mostly write things like: “Poorly structured.”
Fourth, it enhances the clarity of the assignment. Every student has a different interpretation of what the assignment is and means. With two or three other papers to compare to, each student is able to get a different facet of what was assigned to them. They can use the examples of their classmates to improve their drafts, and they can compare what they thought it meant to what their classmates thought. This is especially helpful because students are more willing to ask their peers for help than the instructor, so if a student working alone doesn’t understand something, they will probably guess and more than likely fail.
However, a peer review process won’t work unless the instructor is willing to do a little work to get it going. To start off, you would need to make it clear that they should have a complete draft written. It’s not valuable for one student to put a lot of work into a draft, and then have three classmates make uninformed comments about it because they haven’t written a single thing. The first student doesn’t even get the chance to compare to classmates’ drafts. Of course, this doesn’t always fix the problem, as there will always be slackers who end up with nothing, either because they forgot or weren’t aware that when the syllabus says “draft due,” and you tell them in the two class sessions, “By the way, you need your drafts done by Wednesday,” that it meant they were supposed to bring in drafts.
The next step is to assign groups. While it seems easy—and, on the surface, fair—to allow students to pick their own groups, that won’t get the best kind of interaction. In grouping students, the first thing to take into account is the effort put into class. You want at least one student in each group who will take the task seriously and keep everyone on task, at the very least so that they will get help on their own papers. You also want to try to vary writing ability: Don’t have a group of all students who are good writers, because that will handicap the rest of the class. Good writers will have a much better understanding of what their classmates need. Your good writers need to help pull up your less skilled writers, and they also need to see the obvious problems that the less skilled have, because it will help them recognize their own challenges. If a student who doesn’t generally use enough detail sees a paper that’s just a basic summary, they are more likely to see that adding detail is valuable, even in their writing they already believe to be good.
Once the groups are assigned, you can’t just sit back and let the work happen. You have to coach them. Most students are uncomfortable giving commentary to their classmates. First of all, it feels mean to say negative things about your peers’ writing, so the instinct is to just say, “It’s good,” and to point out the obvious grammatical errors. Second—and more importantly—it’s easy for student writers to feel that their comments won’t be valuable. A lot of students feel like their peers’ comments aren’t worth anything, and that it’s only the professor’s opinion that matters most. I would counter that by pointing out that any audience can help someone recognize shortcomings in her writing, because they don’t know the things that writer does and aren’t as familiar with her writing style than the writer herself is. Indeed, even you as an instructor are already more familiar with your students’ writing than their peers are.
In order to coach them to make more valuable comments, you have to listen into the discussions. Not only will it help you recognize when a group is going off track (talking about their weekend plans—a good time to give a little evil eye or make a pointed comment to the class), but it will also allow you to ask leading questions:
“I like it.”
“What’s good about it?”
“What do you mean when you say it’s well-written? What does it succeed at?”
“I guess it makes sense to me.”
“What about it helps you to make sense of it?”
These kinds of questions will generally force them to look back at the paper and look for good comments to save face and look more prepared in front of the professor. That, in turn, will encourage better comments from everyone else in the group, to bring up the level of aid. I always try to let them know to think about what would help them to write their own papers better, because a comment like “It’s well-written” doesn’t help them to understand how to get an A on the paper.
Above all, coaching shows the students that you’re not just trying to get out of grading 100 drafts (because, really, that just sucks). By asking the right questions and by showing them how the process helps them, you are allowing them to take ownership of their own learning process. I like to think that the peer review is a turning point for some students, so that they recognize the real value of taking a writing class.