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 their students are not big fans of 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 his or her 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 student’s responses to peer review sessions would always remain mixed at best.
A Problem of Authority?
My peer review sessions only improved when I noticed that the difficulty inherent in the activity could have something to do with a diffusion of authority. In the moment of peer review we temporarily subvert the teacher’s authority only to restore it once our students submit their final projects. In fact, many of my students have gotten me to understand that their dislike of peer review results from a doubt in their peer’s authority to give constructive feedback.
But there is more to that. Edward Hahn suggests that in the absence of the authoritative voice of the instructor, students tend to reproduce real power structures. 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 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 and its underlying pedagogical agenda only work in a writing classroom that is already student-centered. Rather than an isolated instance that temporarily decentralizes the authority of the teacher, it should be an ongoing conversation between students that begins on the first day of class.
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 Conscious Activity
And yet, it would be naïve to assume that the student-centered classroom is a cure-all. As Julia Voss and Edward Hahn suggest, instructors should use the occasion of collaborative work to theorize the rhetorical dynamics of power structures in the classroom. It seems that to foster real collaboration among students, instructors not only have to make their classes more student-centered but also invite students to reflect on how authority operates in the rhetorical situations they encounter in the classroom.
Franziska Tsufim edited this post on June 7th, 2019.