Franziska Tsufim, M.A., Department of English
Over the years, students in my composition classes have repeatedly complained that peer review was a “waste of time”. My students’ experience is not unique. Although most writing teachers use peer review in their classrooms, many report that students often dislike the activity (Wagner; Gooblar). The underlying idea behind peer review is innovative: peer feedback should remove the focus away from the teacher to the student who becomes the architect of their own learning (Brammer and Rees). It is hardly difficult to discover that there exists a mismatch between what the peer review assignment thinks it does and what it achieves in reality.
An obstacle for effective peer review is that students have a hard time discerning what constitutes “good writing” (Wagner). Following other instructors’ leads, I have attempted to address this problem by publishing detailed guidelines before peer review sessions, circulating feedback forms, and experimenting with peer review groups. Despite these efforts, I had silently accepted that my students’ responses to peer review sessions would always remain mixed at best.
A Problem of Authority?
Reflecting on the nature of the activity, I noticed that peer review is tantamount to a temporary suspension of the teacher’s authority. But—and this is the catch—instructors quickly restore this authority once students have completed the activity or submit their final papers for a grade. In fact, many of my students have given me to understand that their dislike of peer review results from a doubt in their peers’ authority to give constructive feedback.
But there is more to that. Recent literature suggests that social inequalities heavily influence group work activities in the college classroom (Hahn). The negative emotions that some students associate with peer review could be connected to students’ tendency to define “good writing” along the lines of social privilege, potentially disadvantaging diverse learners.
Peer Review as an Ongoing Activity
A first step toward addressing the authority diffusion inherent in peer review might be to think about how we conduct class. Studies show that successful peer review happens in a “shared community” that fosters collaboration among students (Brammer and Rees). Whereas guidelines and feedback forms help to structure the activity, they are hardly sufficient to prepare students for the activity’s collaborative dimension. Peer review only works in a writing classroom that is already student-centered and fosters a sense of shared responsibility and compassion.
In my classroom, students not only respond to each other’s’ drafts in peer review groups. They also work together to dissect writing samples from previous classes. From there, they rework the samples and use them to generate writing tips for their peers. Peer feedback not only means that students check a draft against already existing standards, but generate their own standards in conversation with the samples as well as their peers.
Peer Review as a Mindful Activity
And yet, more work is needed. As recent studies on peer view suggest, instructors should use the occasion of collaborative work to help students to reflect on how power operates in the classroom especially when working in small groups (Voss, Hahn). The things that have helped me to successfully address this problem are asking students to set an intention for their group work, reflect on their own role and voice in peer review sessions, and think together about what makes a collaborative project truly collaborative.
The results speak for themselves: Ever since I am fostering student-to-student interactions in my classroom and am asking students to be more mindful about how they approach group working situations, the overwhelming majority of them attests to benefitting from the activity.
Franziska Tsufim edited this post on June 9th, 2021.