Alma P. Olaguez, M.S., Department of Psychological Science

What Makes a Good Paper?

Most students can differentiate a good writing sample from a bad writing sample. However, most students have difficulty producing concrete reasons why a paper is bad beyond “It just doesn’t flow.” Most importantly, the students who cannot produce concrete reasons are the students who struggle with writing the most. By having students identify what makes a paper “bad” through peer review and exercises in a group of their classmates, students can become better writers themselves.

Have Students Learn From Their Peers

Although students often do not enjoy peer review assignments (Wagner, 2018), the benefits of identifying problems in other’s writing is undeniable for improving our own writing. We first have to help students identify the many components of a bad paper and this can be done through collaborative learning. I provide students in groups with an example of a bad paper and have them create a list of reasons why this paper is not written well. I first go over examples of how to identify bad flow, grammar, colloquial language, lack of main arguments, and formatting in a bad paper, and highlight the differences when compared to a good paper. In a group setting, students can learn from their peers and realize that their opinion of the “bad” paper may differ from the group. Students who were not able to identify problems in their writing can learn from students who can identify them with ease.

Doing this in a group setting can help students develop social skills and improve performance on their writing abilities by receiving immediate feedback from their peers (Hammar Chiriac, 2014). Qualities of a bad paper not identified by one student will be identified by another and they will be able to discuss and debate whether that is a detrimental component of a paper. Because writing quality is subjective, this process can help students learn about their peers’ perspective on what is important for a quality paper. After this group exercise, students reflect on their experiences in a one-minute paper, in which students are given one minute to reflect on what was the most important thing they learned and what question remains unanswered. The one-minute paper provides students with a positive opportunity for self-reflection (Lumpkin et al., 2015) and can identify instances in which they previously incorporated any of these qualities in their own writing.

Peer Review Should be Anonymous

When it comes time to critique each other’s paper, students should do so anonymously. Anonymous peer review allows students to provide more critical feedback without the fear of hurting their classmate’s feelings (Lu & Bol, 2007). When students produce quality feedback, this saves us time as instructors since another classmate has already provided more extensive feedback.


Cathey, C. (2007). Power of peer review: An online collaborative learning assignment in social psychology. Teaching of Psychology, 34, 97-99.

Lu, R., & Bol, L. (2007). A comparison of anonymous versus identifiable e-peer review on college student writing performance and the extent of critical feedback. Journal of Interactive Online Learning, 6, 100-115.

Lumpkin, A., Achen, R. M., & Dodd, R. K. (2015). Student perceptions of active learning. College Student Journal, 49, 121-133.

Hammar Chiriac, E. (2014). Group work as an incentive for learning–students’ experiences of group work. Frontiers in psychology, 5, 1-10.

Wagner, R. (2018). Peer review reviewed. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved November 20, 2019.

Matthew Mahavongtrakul edited this post on December 3rd, 2019.