Peer Review in Writing Class: 5 Ways to Help Students Embrace Critiques and Revisions

In 16 years of teaching writing, I’ve learned peer review is an excellent investment of class time.

In writing class, peer review reinforces the value of revision and critiques.Peer review in a writing class is inspired by the process where researchers ask their colleagues to critique their articles before publication. In the classroom, well-prepared students can use peer review to reinforce the importance of revising their work and testing their understanding of assignments before they hand in a high-stakes final draft.

These five strategies will help students make the best of a peer-review experience:

Show, don’t tell

One significant barrier to effective peer review is that students don’t always feel comfortable doing it. Holding a mock peer review helps. Give students a writing sample and a peer review guide or grading rubric and ask them to read through the essay, making comments as they go.

This can be assigned as homework and shared in a discussion the next day. Give students feedback during this process that helps show them how to provide useful and constructive commentary. Consider giving different groups different sample essays and discussing all of the feedback together.

Students will benefit from reviewing a sample essay that is either poorly developed, significantly overwritten or just right. If the students’ textbook includes models, it can be particularly helpful for them to critique these samples. It also shows that a seemingly perfect essay is still worthy of significant commentary and input.

Don’t just partner up

One of the easiest setups for peer review is to partner students and have them swap essays, write comments and then discuss their overall opinions afterward. But easiest isn’t always best.

Often multiple reads by multiple reviewers is a better use of time and helps to avoid a strong writer/weak reviewer dynamic. A small group of four is a good compromise, though some students enjoy drawing randomly from a stack, then returning their reviewed essay to the pile and grabbing another draft to comment on when they have finished.

Because I teach in a computer lab, I often run peer review as a sort of musical chairs where students, when finished, stand up and look for another empty seat. This randomizes peer review and allows students to take exactly the time they need with each essay. The short walk between reads gives their mind and body a break from the intense review process.

Focus, people

Another great method is to put students into small groups and then have them focus on a few specific skill sets. In this peer review process, I encourage students to make a quick initial read, making general comments on the essay.

After that, I give them more time to mark the specific skills I’ve asked them to review. I give students highlighters to mark their commentary for each skill set so their author understands their focus and can thoughtfully apply their commentary in revisions.

See the good

Peer review can be intense and draining for some students. Insecure writers in particular have a difficult time with the commentary they collect and can leave the exercise feeling drained.

It may sound silly, but I often bring stickers with me on peer review day. After groups finish their reviews, I have them quickly skim everyone’s essay and find one place to leave a compliment.

They place the sticker and then write a short note. A brief “Great MLA formatting!” or “I love this sentence!” can go far when students are overwhelmed with commentary on their essay. This is a nice, positive way to end a peer review session.

Now what?

In addition to training students in how to make commentary on a peer’s essay, students must also learn what to do with their classmates’ comments after a peer review. After a session, I encourage students to look for “hot spots” in their writing where comments may pile up.

These hot spots often indicate areas where an author needs to look for clarity or revise in response to criticism. While I encourage students to make changes in these areas, I also remind them they are ultimately responsible for their essay. Because peer review is so essential in the revision process, consider giving students in-class time for hands-on revision after a peer review day. This affirms the importance of the work they’ve done and creates space for them to continue crafting their writing.

Consider implementing some of these strategies for incorporating peer review into your own coursework to help reinforce for students the importance of audience and revision. The investment will pay off, both in students’ ability to craft better essays and in their excitement and investment in workshopping as an essential step in their writing process.

Monica Fuglei is a graduate of the University of Nebraska in Omaha and a current faculty member of Arapahoe Community College in Colorado, where she teaches composition and creative writing.

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