Using Research on Peer Review to Strengthen Assignment Design

We at WAC talk a lot about peer review as a strategy for scaffolding assignments and getting students thinking about writing. And for good reason. Peer review supports the research and learning process where knowledge is developed in stages through combining exploration, production, and reflection. Beyond these more commonly discussed aspects, peer review used strategically has other benefits for course design, supporting students, and making class logistics easier for instructors. In this post, we’ll have a look at some of the recent research on peer review that speaks to its usefulness.

One major barrier to great final papers is last minute work. Scaffolding assignments aids in preventing this. How can peer review support this? A number of studies have found that courses tend to have peer review sessions scheduled around a week prior to the final assignment deadline (Baker 2016, 181). In these studies, students focused on copy editing feedback in the form of grammatical points and spelling errors (ibid). The real benefit of peer review, however, comes in the form of development of student ideas. Earlier review sessions allow students time to deal with the content of each other’s arguments. Feedback recipients also can take time to think about feedback and implement it more thoughtfully. Schedule peer review sessions earlier in the semester (and have this be part of their grade). In addition to increasing the chances of higher quality work, this also makes students less likely to plagiarize since they have more time to prepare and work with sources. Foregrounding the role of peer review by scheduling it early in the semester as a graded component will also socialize students into the importance of peer review. Rather than seeing it as a final requirement after the bulk of the work is done, it can be a significant component to building a paper.

Emphasizing peer review as crucial in the process can also happen through assistance in giving feedback. While students may have done peer reviews before, the truth is they rarely get explicit instruction in how to go about this. The thought of giving negative comments to fellow classmates can be intimidating. And, students often are not sure what to focus on for feedback. Models for feedback delivery can assist with this. For example, peer review can include a handout with prompts for students to use. Incorporating this as an official feedback form gives students guidelines for thinking about their classmates’ work. Prompts can include:

  • This paper is about _______________________
  • The biggest strength of this paper is __________________________________
  • You should most focus on ________________________ in order to support your thesis.
  • You might think about (xyz theory, writer, etc.)
  • I’m not sure I understand (how z supports y, x is connected to z, etc.) Can you explain this more?
  • I was really interested in your point about ______________________________

These types of prompts help students understand supportive ways to frame comments. This also helps to guide them in what to focus on. If you want to go further with this, you can use these or similar prompts when working with assigned course texts. Doing this as part of a class discussion helps students become active readers and think of what points in a piece of writing warrant feedback. Along these lines, there may be a positive correlation between deliberation (as opposed to argumentation) around a topic and learning outcomes (Klein 2016, 228). Argumentation puts students in a position to defend ideas whereas deliberation invites more open-ended discussion. To this end, getting students to think of peer review as active engagement with a text’s ideas (as opposed to criticism) can foster deliberation. The prompts above can help with this.

What sort of feedback has results? How can we give our students specific models so that peers have usable feedback? A study of peer review in an ESL class offers clues. In a 2017 study of digital peer review sessions for ESL students, researchers classified types of feedback into a number of categories describing content and qualities (Leijen). They found that two types of feedback were most likely to lead to revisions: alteration and recurring (ibid, 44). Feedback classified as alteration offered specific guidance on points in the text. For example: “Evidence A doesn’t seem to connect to your main point. Maybe add an explanatory paragraph to clarify.” This is in contrast to more global feedback such as “Evidence doesn’t support main idea well.” Recurring feedback was the same advice given by multiple reviewers. This study provides valuable information for helping students design feedback for peers. Giving them examples of specific and direct feedback and having multiple reviewers can make feedback more productive for students.

All of this we have discussed so far relates to the inherently social nature of writing. Klein (2016) notes that more recent theories of writing characterize it as created within various kinds of contexts and by multiple contributors (329-330). Indeed, writing is never truly a solitary affair. Feedback, ideas from the world around us, course lectures and readings, and many other things all come together to create written work. Peer review is a way to build on the multi-voiced nature of writing to help students succeed.

References

Baker, Kimberly M. 2016. “Peer Review as a Strategy for Improving Students’ Writing Process.” Active Learning in Higher Education 17(3): 179-192.

Klein, Perry D. 2016. “Trends in Research on Writing as a Learning Activity.” Journal of Writing Research 7(3): 311-350.

Leijen, D.A.J. 2017. “A Novel Approach to Examine the Impact of Web-based Peer Review on the Revisions of L2 Writers.” Computers and Composition 43: 35-54.