Peer Review: Pedagogical Commitments
Peer review is a fixture in many classrooms, particularly when writing is involved. While there is still ambivalence toward peer review from both teachers and students (common concerns involve the quality and trustworthiness of peer feedback), many teachers, like me, find peer review a useful way to teach composing and revision strategies.
One of the things I value most in peer review is its potential to serve as a space for students to engage each other and their writing differently than they would in a teacher-mediated discussion. It is, in other words, an “in-between” space where students can employ a range of linguistic and meaning-making strategies to engage each other, where what they say and how they say is less constrained by the conventions of standardized classroom discourse.
But I also know how important it is to provide clear structure in a complex activity like peer review: expectations must be clear, and there must be clear scaffolding for students to recognize and practice the skills they are being held accountable for (in this case, giving and engaging with productive feedback). These two pedagogical commitments lead me to something of a paradox: how do I balance preserving the “in-between-ness” of peer review with providing structure and accountability? I have found that the tools I use in peer review (both analog and digital) shape the way I navigate that paradox.
From Analog to Digital
When I first started using peer review in the classroom, it was fairly analog: students brought in handwritten or typed drafts and handwrote their comments on drafts, which they then took home to use for revised drafts. Because I wanted students to take those reviewed drafts with them, I would sit in on groups to check for completion. But as is often the case when a teacher drops in on a group, the conversation is constrained in ways that went against my commitment to preserving “in-between” classroom spaces.
Now my peer review activities are entirely digital: on an LMS platform (my institution uses Canvas) or, most recently, on Eli Review, a web app designed by teachers at Michigan State University. In this post, I’m focusing on one particular feature of Eli: a real-time sampling (in the teacher’s view) of students’ peer review comments. This struck me as having potential to function as a Twitter-esque feed, so I projected it (and manually refreshed it) during the peer review activity. (There’s an option to hide student names for projection, which I’ve used in the screen shots below.)
I talked to my students about this decision before implementing it, encouraging them to think about it as another level of engagement (not just with their groupmates but with the rest of the class) and as a way to examine models of feedback. And I found that this “live feed” of the written artifacts of peer review (students’ comments on each others’ drafts) allowed me to stop dropping in on groups’ conversations (except when I was invited). This was a new way to balance “in-between-ness” and structure, and in course evaluations and a survey I conducted, students reported finding peer review helpful in higher numbers than I’d previously seen.
Considerations for Implementation
There are many issues to consider in adopting a digital platform for peer review (for instance, my institution requires that for any web application outside of the university’s password-protected system, students be informed of the potential risks and given a chance to opt out of using the application). Here, I will simply offer some considerations for adopting a “live feed” approach to classroom peer review:
- Invite your students to participate in a conversation about what a “live feed” means, and develop shared expectations for the discourse. Invite them to think about how this activity might be similar to other writing situations (Twitter and beyond).
- Remind your students that this is another level of critical engagement: not only with their groupmates’ drafts, but also with the feedback “posts” of other classmates. Each post is an opportunity to think about what effective feedback can look like/do.
- Consider connecting the “live feed” activity with an activity that gives students the opportunity to make decisions about taking up feedback from peers. For example, students could create a revision plan in which they cite and credit helpful comments from peers. Consider encouraging students to thank their peers for helpful comments (and create a space for them to do so).