Peer Review: Four Guiding Principles

We recently completed our first peer review session in my summer first-year writing course. I was really impressed with my students because they quickly understood what needed to be accomplished. Many of my students this semester are directly from high school. That is, they graduated from high school two or three weeks ago, and then they started taking summer classes at the University of Minnesota (UMN).

I’m sure the culture shock between high school and the university environment is startling, but I couldn’t imagine how startling it must be for students who only graduated high school two or three weeks ago. My own college experience allowed me six months respite between my high school graduation and beginning college coursework; I’m glad I had that respite.

So, I was impressed and immensely proud of all my students for picking up the pace and timber of the course. Peer review is not always easy. Many students don’t know how to do it, and many teachers don’t know how to explain it or don’t see value in it. I’m of the mind that the latter is more pervasive than the former (but that’s for another post!).

As we prepared for peer review, I instructed my students to bring two hard copies of their current assignment (a literacy narrative) to our class meeting. One copy was for their peer review partner(s), and one copy was for me, so I could see how far along they were with their writing. My students paired up or formed triads for peer reviewing. We worked from two main questions. I wanted them to keep these two questions in mind as they read through their peers’ work:

  1. What is the writer attempting to say in their work?
  2. How engaging and effective is the writer’s message?

These questions are obviously quite broad, but they are good guiding questions that allow students to explore their peers’ work without being boxed in by, for example, a worksheet.

We separated the peer review into two parts.

Part One: The Reader’s Stream of Consciousness

For part one of peer review, I asked my students not to write on anything and to simply read their peers’ work silently to themselves. But, instead of just reading or simply digesting, I asked them to say out loud how they were feeling or what they thought as those feelings and thoughts came into their mind. The writer would listen to the reader saying what comes into his mind as he is reading.

This way, the writer could get an honest gut reaction to their work. It’s important for writers to understand the gut reaction of their audience. (For those who know me, they know I encourage and appreciate appropriate bluntness, so this strategy is in keeping with my general stance.)

Hopefully, after part one of the peer review, the writer has honest and direct feedback, which they have jotted down, from the reader.

Part Two: The Reader’s Mark Up and Detail

For part two of peer review, I asked my students to mark up their peers’ work as they read through it. They needed to read through their peers’ entire document, and then they were to offer constructive feedback through mark up. However, they couldn’t just mark up work and leave it; they had to explain in detail why they were marking something. Thus, if they didn’t know how to explain something, then they couldn’t mark up their peers’ work.

This way, the reader could review and mark up the work, and the writer would only get feedback if the reader could explain why they were offering said feedback.

Hopefully, after part one and two of the peer review, the writer has both verbal and written feedback from their audience that they could incorporate during revision.

Four Guiding Thoughts for the Peer Reviewing Writer and Reader

I love doing peer review in my courses. I think students get a lot out of it (if it’s done correctly), and I think the instructor gets a lot out of it. I usually walk around, offer feedback, and help my students as they peer review.

With every session of peer review, I write the following four guiding thoughts on the board to remind my students and myself how we should act when we peer review:

  1. Be constructive
  2. Be kind.
  3. Be helpful.
  4. Read and listen.

I never want my students to feel attacked as their work is reviewed by one of their peers. It is unacceptable, and I do not tolerate such behavior in my courses. As much as I do give my students a lot of control over the class, there are just some things I need to mediate to ensure everyone has a productive and fun time.

My students follow these guiding thoughts, and it helps them remember how to treat their fellow peers. College is difficult enough, and peer review, no matter how useful, should not be a source of difficulty or anxiety.

I have had success with this approach to peer review, and my students seem to get a lot out of their peer review experiences.

Photo provided by the author.