Thursday, April 26, 2007

In Praise of Blindness: Making Peer Response Count

I hear this complaint all the time – from instructors and students – that peer response is, in effect, the blind leading the blind.

A common scenario: Students get into small groups to “workshop” their papers. After about five minutes they are examining their cuticles or talking about last night’s episode of South Park. When asked why they aren’t discussing their papers they say “we’re done; the papers look good; we don’t know what else to say.”

Here is what else I know:
1. Peer response is an incredibly powerful teaching tool to help students improve their writing and boost their confidence as writers/readers.
2. When it works (and it does!) students write better revisions than if they only received instructor feedback. In portfolio essays and course evaluations, my students most often cite peer response as the most valuable tool to their improvement as writers.
3. But the instructor has to lay some groundwork first.

How I’ve made it work:
• Workshops don’t work (at least not at first). Students will have much more success (both as reviewers and reviewees) if they write a formal peer response letter or critique.
• Practicing as a large group, giving a mock critique of a "fake" paper primes the pump, gets students’ critical and analytical muscles working, reminds them they know how to be readers, and gives the instructor a chance to model how to reframe vague or overly evaluative comments.
• A few specific prompts of issues to address in the paper (i.e. main idea and introduction) encourage insightful, supported comments; a laundry list of many possible writing issues to address won’t.
• Writing a self-evaluation/revision plan is important if students are to apply feedback (mine or other students’) to their drafts and make real revisions.

I find it useful to first do a mock workshop in class using a “fake “paper. This can be accomplished in a half hour or less. They are much more likely to be brutally honest when they don't know the writer. At that time you can reframe their comments in constructive ways while praising them for being critical, and remind them that honest, respectful criticism is much more helpful for the writer than vacant praise. I also facilitate this workshop by making them point to specifics rather than making general comments like "it flows, I liked it."

With the peer letter, I make it a formal assignment: typed, double-spaced, proofread, and with an assigned point value. You might even tell them ahead of time what you'll be looking for (like a grading rubric). What’s worked best for my classes is for each student to take home and critique two peers’ papers.

Lastly, I think it’s important to have writers write a short self-evaluation and evaluation of their peers’ critiques – what advice or insights did they find helpful? how will they use this feedback (or their own insights) when revising the piece? In this way the feedback loop comes full circle as writers consider and incorporate criticism and plan their revision.

This is one way I’ve used peer response successfully. I think it teaches my students to be better critics of their own work. It also frees me up from feeling responsible for giving a lot of comments on early drafts. Both of these aspects fit my pedagogical goal of treating writing as a process rather than as a flawed product that I, the instructor/expert, give advice on how to “fix.

Please share your own best practices related to using peer response. Post them on the blog or email me with other ideas, questions, clarifications, or for materials.

And have your students read this week’s informative and entertaining Writing Center blog entry at on how to make peer response work for them as a writer and a reader.