Better Peer Reviews: Why and How, featuring Laura Willis

Dr. Jeffrey Fergus, Associate Dean for Program Assessment in the College of Engineering, is exactly right; peer review is an important and useful practice for helping students be better writers, and they don’t always do it well. This month we consider how we can help students learn to do peer review and hear about an in-class strategy for improving the quality of peer review from Laura Willis, Associate Clinical Professor in Communication Disorders.

Like Dr. Fergus, many university professors ask students to do peer review because they know that good writers need feedback from readers in order to make their writing clearer and better. Peer review activities are also important because when students see the work of their classmates, they not only see how writing assignments can be done differently, but they can often see problems in the writing of others that help them learn to see the problems in their own writing. Peer review is also a time saver for faculty members since students will have already revised once and removed the most obvious problems. And, as Dr. Fergus points out, having students do peer review doesn’t remove the responsibility that individual authors have in making decisions about their own writing and making those decisions helps students gain confidence and independence as writers. So there are lots of good reasons for having students do peer review, but how do we get them to do it better?

Unfortunately, we too often assume that students know how to give good comments to their classmates or will see the value in peer review in the same ways we do. In truth, students need our guidance in learning how to make meaningful comments, in learning the expectations of our disciplines, and in negotiating the relationship with peers. Students, even graduate students, regularly tell us that when their professor expects them to do peer review but offers no explanation or guidance about how that review should be done, they feel ill equipped to offer feedback to others.

One strategy for guiding peer review is to have students do it in class and give them specific questions or at least a structure for completing the review. As Laura Willis explains in this month’s video feature, structuring the peer review and modeling it in class helps students not only do a better review but to see the review process as valuable. Indeed, we know that students assume that assignments that get little attention from faculty aren’t really important. When faculty ask students to do peer review and model or guide the way to do that review, it makes it more likely that students will see the writing assignment and the peer review as important and spend more time on both. As has been well established, more time on a task plus focused attention means deeper student engagement and increased learning.

Offering guidance in how to do peer review is especially important at the beginning of a program when students are still learning the expectations of specific genres or at the beginning of a course when students are figuring out what the assignment and the professor expects of them. When faculty think in advance about what the assignment is meant to accomplish, they can structure the peer review to match their objectives. The result of such advanced planning is that the peer reviews are more likely to reinforce those learning objectives. Some general principles for guiding peer review are outlined in a handout we created for a workshop on peer review we did last spring.

We’re offering an advanced workshop (click here to register) this fall focused specifically on writing the instructions for students to do peer review, either in or out of class. For faculty who haven’t done peer review in this way before, we can help create guiding questions that fit the assignment and the course objectives. We can also model and facilitate peer review with your students in a mini-lesson. Faculty in courses with large enrollments have found such sessions especially helpful because we can bring Miller Writing Center consultants with us to help facilitate small groups of peer reviewers. As you’ll see, Laura’s guiding questions were created in just such a partnership. No strategy is foolproof, of course, but intentional guidance and modeling what we expect in class has improved the quality of peer review for many instructors. Next month we’ll look at strategies for having students do peer review outside of classtime.

What’s your approach to using peer review or helping students to offer better comments to peers? Do you have an assignment, tool, or strategy to share with others?
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