Shelley Reid, an English professor at George Mason University, did a presentation on peer-review at the recent Teaching Professor Conference. (For information about The Teaching Professor Conference, visit www.teachingprofessor.com/conference/index.html.) She has written previously on the topic in The Teaching Professor. I attended her session and was not disappointed. Her thinking about how students can be substantively engaged with each other’s writing is robust and creative. The strategies she proposes avoid the problems that frequently emerge when students are asked to provide each other feedback and, as the title of her session indicates, get “Beyond ‘Good Job, Jenny.’”
If your goals for using peer review include building community in the class and emphasizing independent critical reading, writing, and thinking skills or if you want to help inexperienced reviewers provide honest feedback, Reid recommends exploratory, open-ended, and student-directed activities. Here are some examples. Have the peer review readers start by listing five criteria that would make this assignment good and then, after reading the peer’s paper, indicate where the author meets those criteria and where improvement is needed. Or, ask the peer reviewers to read the paper and immediately turn it over and write what they remember best about the paper and what seems hazy, unclear, or difficult to follow.
If your goals for peer review are to help students focus on new or difficult strategies, work to develop more nuanced critical reading and writing skills, or introduce reviewers to other approaches to evaluation, Reid suggests more professor direction on the elements to review. For example, ask writers to underline three places in the paper where they successfully accomplish something (like making an argument, using ideas from reading, or incorporating a quotation smoothly). Or, peer reviewers can be asked to read the paper and using an assignment checklist give the author a check minus, check, or check plus for each category. They can also be directed to write at least one praise comment on the paper: “Good work here on … .” and one suggestion: “Try more … here.”
Students aren’t born knowing how to provide detailed and constructive feedback. Without the kind of guidance Reid proposes, they tend not to take the process very seriously either as a reviewer or author. But given specific directions and well-designed activities, students can provide each other valuable feedback at the same time they learn important lessons about constructive criticism.