Peer Response Strategies
11 Ways to Teach Peer Writing and Response
by Jane Kokernak and Lowry Pei; Reprinted from Rick Reis' Tomorrow's Professor mailing list at Stanford U.
1. Set aside time for the initial peer activities to happen in class.
Face-to-face human interactions lay the groundwork for similar activities outside
of class or online. You can begin at any point in the course, whether it's the first
week or the tenth, because making peer writing and response part of your course signals
to students a belief that learning and meaning-making are collaborative, and not only
individual, tasks. Activities such as ones we suggest raise vital questions about
course content and can infuse new energy and ideas into a flagging group.
2. As a first activity, make sure that every student has been heard to read at least a sentence of her work out loud to her peers.
3. Combine brief individual writing exercises with collaborative work.
This takes only a little time, draws on students' course knowledge and analytical
powers, and can be easily varied and used again and again. Example: a professor of
ecology might have her students write each week about concepts in the course readings
that are crucial to the course. She could first ask the students to explain a key
concept in writing in their own words; then she could have the students share their
efforts in small groups and come up with a group version of the explanation, making
use of the strengths that they find in the individual pieces.
4. Always structure the tasks for peer response.
Whether in or outside class or online, peer response activities should be focused and manageable. Before work begins, explain and model useful responses, in class if possible, or in instructions that you hand out or post online. Use worksheets or online forms to guide responders in giving appropriate responses. Because peer feedback, like a teacher's, cannot consider every aspect of the written piece, design a worksheet that focuses the reviewer on only three or four substantial issues. If, for example, you are concerned with students supporting all their points with data, the feedback should zero in on assertions, evidence, and relevance, not on punctuation.
5. Choose some pieces that will be read aloud and discussed in class, by the whole group.
Keep track of whose work was discussed publicly, and try to avoid repeaters. Doing at least one piece this way for each assignment cycle communicates to students that the task of writing is essential to the course. Earlier in the course, choose strong work that has features you wish others would emulate; as the semester continues, choose pieces that show solid work but contain a problem that many people are having. As the group discusses these pieces, individual students will absorb the advice they are giving to their peers and use it, perhaps even unconsciously, in their own future writing.
6. Emphasize observational feedback.
The evaluative response may not be the most useful response -- a student writer may learn more about the state and meaning of her writing and thinking from a peer who summarizes the gist; asks questions about logical gaps or leaps; articulates what about a written text made him think; or shares his knowledge on the writer's topic. Try this: As a first attempt at getting your students to do this, have them trade brief pieces of writing (e.g., two-page reading responses) and write a thoughtful letter of reply to the other. Because informal writing, like a reading response, may be used in a content course strictly as a conveyor of course-related thinking, it doesn't always need to be considered and evaluated as a crafted text.
7. During collaborative work, in class and out, periodically touch base with each pair or group.
As teacher supervising peer review exercises in class, your first responsibility is to the success of the activity, rather than to any one piece of writing. In the classroom, spend a minute or two with each small group, asking them how the process is going and, if they seem stuck, offering an observation or question to restart their conversation. In online forums, make your presence known -- "lurk" openly and affirmatively -- by commenting on a student's contribution. Your attention motivates commitment to the process, and even a simple statement (e.g., "The two of you are getting to a more complex understanding of Hobbes's concerns about the state of nature.") affirms and gives shape to students' informal dialogue.
8. Have a back-up plan for empty-handed students who come to class without any writing to share.
Distribute the empty-handed ones among groups as feedback givers, since they still have responsibility to their peers and presumably have the capacity to give something useful. Their participation in small-group discussion might help them to get their own writing going. Or, if they seem overwhelmed by the assignment and unable to make useful contributions, meet with them as a group to try to help them break the logjam. Talk to them about their (missing) work-in-progress; ask what's holding up their process. Share your experiences with getting stalled projects going; share some moderate sympathy, too, without absolving such students of their responsibility to do some work.
9. Base a peer feedback exercise for students on a kind of helpful feedback you have gotten from a professional peer.
Your current scholarship -- whatever mode that takes (writing, reviewing, editing, consulting) -- gives you insight into effective habits of mind and practices that nurture work in the field. Take a look into your archives for helpful comments from mentors, colleagues, and editors on your work, or unearth examples of feedback you've offered to colleagues. If, for example, a peer reviewer helpfully prompted you to think and write more clearly by asking a set of specific questions, this may serve as a model for a worksheet for students, getting them to ask discipline-specific questions about each other's writing and thinking.
10. Experiment with and vary the kinds of peer feedback exercises you assign.
Students get good at giving feedback fairly quickly. In fact, they can get too good and start hoeing the same feedback row over and over, picking out weak claims, for example, or perceiving logic problems. To counteract this kind of specialization, therefore, design and assign different feedback tasks and help students develop a repertoire of ways of reading and responding. Here are a handful of examples:
-Favorite Sentence. Ask the writer to look over his own piece and mark his favorite sentence; this motivates careful re-reading. Ask the student giving a response to do the same; this is a simple way to bring about encouraging feedback.
-Juicy Verbs. Students trade drafts, circle all the verbs in a section or passage, and suggest more informative ones. Sharpening verbs sharpens thinking and also helps develop a vocabulary appropriate to the discipline.
-Curiosity Response. Students read each other's work, marking places that provoke a desire or need for more information or discussion. In the margin near such moments of curiosity, the reader should say or ask what she'd like to know more about.
-Quicksand Moment. Have students trade short drafts, read them, and identify the most difficult part, the one that's confusing, dense, gets them stuck. In a paragraph, the reader should reflect and write on what causes the difficulty. The most difficult passage in a text may be the paradoxically promising site where the student's thinking can be seen developing.
-Believing and Doubting Game. Peter Elbow came up with this great activity for responding to writing that makes claims, takes a position, or promotes an idea or methodology. Find a full description of it online or in his handbook listed in the following tip.
Bean, John C. Engaging Ideas: The Professor's Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. Jossey-Bass, 1996.
"Collaborative Learning/Learning With Peers." Materials for Faculty, Dartmouth Writing Program. December 2007. <http://www.dartmouth.edu/~writing/materials/faculty/methods/collaborative.shtml>
Elbow, Peter and Patricia Belanoff. Sharing and Responding, 3e. McGraw-Hill, 2000.
Pei, Lowry. "Uses of Informal Writing." Materials on Teaching Writing, Simmons College Writing Center. October 2007. <http://my.simmons.edu/academics/writing-center/wac/teaching-writing.shtml>
from TOMORROW'S PROFESSOR MAILING LIST, sponsored by the STANFORD CENTER FOR TEACHING AND LEARNING