Conducting Peer Review

Why Include Peer Review in Your Course?

Writers need feedback on their writing in order to improve. While instructor feedback is valuable, asking students to respond to each other’s writing provides additional opportunities for before-the-deadline feedback without increasing the instructor’s workload.

There are other benefits to peer review, as well: Peer review fosters students’ awareness of their own and others’ writing processes and approaches to the writing task. It gives students practice assessing their own and others’ writing and can reinforce course-specific criteria for writing assignments. Moreover, by both giving and receiving critical feedback, peer review teaches valuable skills like listening, evaluating, responding, and reflecting. Incorporating peer review in your class allows students to gain multiple perspectives on their writing, mimicking the process of peer review in professional knowledge production. Finally, having students engage in active dialogue about their intentions and ideas contributes to a collaborative classroom community.

But Don’t Most Students Hate Peer Review?

Peer review sometimes has a bad reputation. Some students (and instructors) view peer review as unproductive because they’ve received advice that’s too nice or too vague to be helpful, too critical to be constructive, or too focused on surface-level editing issues rather than content. You can overcome these negative perceptions by effectively structuring peer review as a regular course component.

What are Best Practices for Peer Review?

To ensure that peer review benefits both the writer and the reader and leads to substantial revision, instructors need to set ground rules. First, the basics:

  • Peer review can be conducted in or out of class, in-person or electronically
  • Peer review can be conducted in pairs or groups (many writing scholars recommend groups of 3-4)
  • Peer review can be conducted in any number of ways, from having students exchange papers in class to using peer review programs like SWoRD.
  • Peer review will need to happen more than once for students to gain practice and fluency
  • Peer review should be conducted at least several days before the final submission deadline, to give students enough time make large-scale revisions
  • Provide clear parameters and require a deliverable, e.g., a form / handout or a letter to the writer
  • Provide coaching and guidance to help students become better peer reviewers

Two female undergraduate students working on peer review.

Instructors should prepare students for peer review by discussing your expectations with the class: What makes feedback helpful or unhelpful? What meaningful feedback can writers take from their readers? What criteria should be used to review papers in this class? Consider providing examples or models of the kind of feedback you’d like students to provide.

Effective peer review is a guided, structured process. You’ll need to provide students with focused tasks or criteria. Encourage them to consider their drafts as “works-in-progress” and prompt them to use description rather than evaluative language. For example:

Instead of “Does the paper have a thesis statement” try “In just one to two sentences, state what position you think the writer is taking. Place stars around the sentence that you think presents the thesis.”

Instead of “Is the paper clearly organized?” try “On the back of this sheet, make an outline of the paper.”

Instead of “Is the paper clearly written” try “Highlight (in any color) any passages you had to read more than once to understand what the writer was saying.”

Students should also indicate at least one thing their peer’s writing is doing well. Students aren’t always aware of what’s working in their texts, so having peers provide positive feedback helps them gain insight into readers’ responses.

Instructors can foster metacognition and agency in the writing process by asking writers to prepare memos for their reviewers that contain a brief summary of the paper’s argument and questions pertaining to the current issues they’re struggling with, e.g., “How persuasive is my argument? What additional evidence could I incorporate? Does my paragraph on p. 2 seem too long?”

Finally, for peer review to work, instructors will need to teach revision and talk with students about how to handle constructive criticism. Often, students make changes related to “low-hanging fruit”—wrong words, missed citations—and avoid taking on larger revision challenges, like restructuring a paper or incorporating more persuasive evidence. Those larger changes can be daunting. Remind students that you care more about macro-level issues like content, structure, and genre conventions. You might ask students to write a memo or reflection summarizing their peer review feedback: What revision tasks will they prioritize? What will be most time-consuming? How will they take steps to address the most challenging or time-consuming revision tasks?

You might even share your own strategies for taking on large-scale revision tasks!

Additional Resources:

  • Making Peer Review Work, University of Wisconsin-Madison
    • Includes general guidelines and a model for structuring peer review
  • Using Student Peer Review, WAC Clearinghouse, for more information about:
    • Planning for peer review
    • Helping students offer effective feedback
    • Providing guidance on using feedback
    • Sample peer review sheets
  • Bean, J. (2011). Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. 2nd Ed., Chapter 15, “Coaching the Writing Process and Handling the Paper Load”

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