The Power of Peer Review

By on September 16, 2013

I've had some pretty magical moments as a teacher, but one of the coolest experiences I had was in my Creative Writing elective class. I got my Master's of Fine Arts Degree in Creative Writing where I was used to the workshop style, where each person in the group had a copy of the text, sat in a circle, and discussed the text with the author while the author stays silent and takes notes about the commentary her group provides.

This worked fine and well with adult learners who knew what good writing looked like and could offer valuable suggestions to each other to improve each other's writing through constructive criticism.

But in a middle school or high school classroom? I'd tried it before, and all my students corrected for each other were grammar mistakes and punctuation.  It was frustrating. One day I just decided to get courageous and try to build the process with my younger learners: My mixed grade 9-12 elective class.

Step by step, here's what I did:

1.COMMUNITY BUILDING

Do lots and lots community building/getting to know each other activities at the beginning of the class to build trust among the students. An easy way to foster this is through appointment calendar activities and other ways of continually pairing kids together to talk and talk often.

2. MODEL

a.) Talk about constructive criticism--how to give it and how to receive it. For this, I used  my document camera. I asked for a couple student volunteers to let me put their drafts up on the screen. I read the first two paragraphs out loud and showed them how to give quality commentary with the focus on improving each other's writing.

b.) Explain "quality commentary." In grad school, we always started writing workshops with two minutes of "what's working and why." "What's working and why" may be a turn of phrase, a really strong image, a clear and focused thesis, an interesting argument--anything. This is powerful for two reasons:  it kicks off the process positively to help the author gain confidence and it gives each peer reviewer an entry point into the text. Everyone can find something that really works in a paper. Then we talk about "questions." I require each student to ask at least two questions per paper. Here are some examples.

  • "I wonder what would happen if the author included another piece of evidence to support his claim in paragraph 2?"
  • "What would happen if the author moved the claim in the third paragraph to the first paragraph?  It seems that is his main claim and I don't think it's supported until the end."  

The term "questions" puts the onus on the author to decide whether or not they want to take their peers' advice. It's a very professional way to give feedback and helps build the emotional intelligence for collaborative groups--a necessity that should not be underestimated, regardless of the grade level you teach. You might also choose to use the sentence stems that guide to commenting on writing. Find language stems under Peer Review.

c.) Fishbowl with a few volunteers.  Have kids on the outside of the circle take note of what's being said within the circle.  What was said that helped the writer the most? What comment was most helpful?

3. PRACTICE

I had my students write a new paper each week. Every Thursday was workshop day. The first time I had them do the workshop, I kept a close monitor of time. I gave them 20 minutes to get as far as they could in the process.  I purposefully didn't want them to get through all the papers to create a desire to be reviewed. This created more buy-in with my kids. While the revisers are discussing, the author is allowed to take notes on what is being said, but is not allowed to talk. I make my students refer to the author as "the author" or "he" or "she," to make the constructive criticism less personal so the kids feel less attacked in the very vulnerable phase of this process. Once the group is done discussing the text, the author gets two minutes to clear up any misinformation, ask questions, and thank the revisers for their assistance.

4. REFLECT

I stopped with a minimum of 10 minutes before the bell for the first 5 times or so we practiced this to leave time for reflecting on the process. There is a great template on the Peer Review skill page.

5. REVISE

After the peer review, my students would take their papers home and revise them. The revision process can also be done in class with adequate technology resources.

6. REFLECT AGAIN

Finally, I asked each of my students to write me a cover letter to their revised essays. I asked them a series of questions to guide their letters. They then turned in the entire packet--the cover letter, on top of the final draft, on top of their rough draft.

For the first few weeks, I didn't grade any of the papers. I only graded their participation in the workshops. At the midterm, I collected one fully revised essay of their choice--the one that had the best writing process and revision. And then I did the same for the final.

I had students tell me that they learned more about writing from those small groups than all of their years in honors English, even more than they learned about writing in AP English. (Yikes! I am an English teacher, too! That feedback adjusted the way I did some things in my non-elective English classes).

Collaborative learning is powerful, especially when it comes to writing. If you give your kids the framework to do it well, I guarantee you'll see the magic in it too.

Do you have any ideas about how to guide students in the peer review process?  How does it work in your classroom?  What do you have your students peer review in your content area? How might this work in other content areas?  Leave a comment below and let's collaborate!

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The Conversation

Olga Olga 9/19/2013

What great specifics, Melissa! Thank you for sharing!

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Ms. Camilleri Ms. Camilleri 9/23/2013

Thanks, Olga! Happy to help! Congrats on your new little one! What a blessing!

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