Peer review assignments can provide a scaffold to a formal writing assignment (such as a term paper) in which students comment on each others’ drafts, thereby relieving instructors of that burden. Peer review activities (whether in class or as a homework assignment) require students to take an active role in their own as well as their fellow students’ learning experiences, allowing them to obtain feedback from more than one person’s point of view. In a traditional classroom setting, students are almost always exclusively given feedback from one authoritative body – the instructor. While it is necessary to have a singular entity that provides feedback and instructions for improvement, it is equally important for students to become comfortable receiving feedback from multiple people. Regardless of the career they choose, students will find there is rarely a back-and-forth between only two people. Collaborations are the norm and so feedback will come from many different individuals, and certain aspects of their work will be more important to some people than others.
When conducting peer review assignments in class, students should be directed to provide well-informed critiques of the work (asking them to model after your own comments as an instructor is a good place to start). This process is similar to the way publishing original research in the academic world works as well (and indeed reflects how work is produced in many non-academic professions as well, making this process beneficial to students, irrespective of their future career choice). It also allows the teacher to assess student learning from an alternative point of view. The peer reviewer assumes the role of “expert” and must therefore provide his/her expert opinion of the work produced by the reviewee. A quality peer review explains to instructors that the reviewer understands the material well enough to provide thoughtful and insightful feedback.
In my experience, students are often more interested in impressing their peers than their teachers, so when they are required to critique each others’ work they will put in more effort to impress. However, it may be useful to provide students with a rubric of some sort they can follow when conducting their review. For example, a student might state that “the main concept was explained well.” As an instructor, that gives little indication that either the reviewer or reviewee knew anything about anything. Instead, students should be required to give specific examples from the text and provide specific feedback. For example, “The author states that animals learn by association, but doesn’t talk about animals that can learn to navigate a maze in the absence of any relevant associative cues.”
Lastly, peer review assignments need not be limited to term papers/essays. They can be easily adapted to mock poster or oral presentations in which students present their posters to a group and be prepared to field questions and defend critiques of their work. Peer review assignments not only provide an alternate way of assessing student work, they lend themselves well to assignments that require multiple drafts.