Distancing Solutions: Three Options for Socially Distant Peer Review Sessions

Students work at tables while socially distant and wearing masks

For many of us, when COVID-19 entered our classrooms certain cherished classroom activities became problematic and potentially hazardous. For those teaching face-to-face, classrooms were suddenly full of masked and unmasked students sitting several feet apart, and many classes were scheduled in odd rooms, such as giant lecture halls or conference rooms. These adjustments to the classroom environment required faculty to reimagine their typical in-class activities.

In my case, I struggled with safely conducting in-person peer review activities for my first-year writing course. Peer review typically involves students sharing their drafts with their classmates. Students often pass their drafts to each other, write on those papers, and huddle up to discuss each paper in depth in a small group.

My first face-to-face, covid-era writing course had an enrollment of 24 students, and we were scheduled in a room that could hold 125 students. At the time, we were required to social distance and wear masks, and there were more hand sanitizer bottles than student papers in the room. This strange environment made typical peer review impossible. However, I firmly believed in the magic that happened during in-person peer reviews, and I knew there had to be a way through this hurdle. The review process was too valuable, as the review helped students see examples of writing, and they could talk immediately about their reactions as readers. After seeing multiple drafts and discussing the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of their writing, they could turn directly to their own work and make adjustments.

Because I was encouraged to avoid relying on any web-based activities for in-person scheduled classes, I decided to create several socially distanced peer review activities that would keep us safe while encouraging the special teaching moments created by effective peer reviews.

As a result, I’m sharing how to conduct socially distant peer reviews, as a bit of healthy space is still an important goal today, regardless of the subject matter. These three options range in contact levels from a small amount to no-contact.

Option one: Leave a letter

In this option, students share their hard copy short drafts with several members of the class. The students move around the class alone, reading drafts and leaving a note. Materials are sanitized and students do not touch the draft. Usually, students will be able to read five or six papers in a typical class.

Here is the process to apply this option:

  • Ask students to put their drafts face up on the table in front of them.
  • Place a stack of blank paper next to each draft.
  • Ask students to rotate to the left with their own pen and stand in front of someone else’s draft.
  • Read that person’s draft but do not touch it or write on it.
  • Sanitize your hands, take an empty sheet of paper, and provide a note that covers the following content:
    • Greeting to the writer
    • Identify what worked well for you as a reader
    • Identify two areas that needed more detail
    • Sign your name
  • Repeat as time permits.

Return to your seat, read the letters, and sanitize your hands.

This option works well for a short assignment or a section of a longer paper (about one to two pages). Ideally, the environment is safer with a hard copy of the essay, so no one has to touch a personal laptop. Classrooms would need to be large enough to support one student per table. Students should use their own pens or pencils as they move around the room. Students report enjoying this activity, as a handwritten letter is a rare item, and the inclusion of praise made students feel good about their writing. The instructor can also walk by and glance quickly through each paper in this manner, so any noticed common concerns or strengths could be talked about after the activity.

Option two: Read, think, and talk

For this option, students share their hard copy short drafts with three to four members of the class. The students are spread out in the room and placed into a roomy three- to four-person group. Students will be able to read two or three papers, and this option may work well for a short 50-minute class.

Here is the process to apply this option:

  • Place students into groups of three or four.
  • Have students go to a table with their draft, notebook, and pen/pencil while staying six feet apart.
  • Ask each student to place their draft face up on the table.
  • Each student moves to the left to a new draft.
  • One at a time, the student reads the draft on the table in front of them out loud to the group. The draft should not be touched.
  • Group members listen and after the reading is done, they discuss what worked well, what they liked, and what areas they wanted to hear more detail.
  • During the discussion, the writer takes notes on what is being said about their draft.
  • Repeat for the next group member.

This second option works well for a shorter piece, such as an opening paragraph, a section of a lab report, or a quick response piece. This option does require a room large enough to support multiple groups of three students per table spaced out around the room. Also, the instructor can wander between the groups and listen to the conversations.

Option three: Project and share

In this option, students will share their drafts with the entire class, and no one will have contact with any papers or materials. To prepare for this option, students will email or use an online dropbox for their materials, and the instructor will project the draft on a screen using a projector.

Here is the process to apply this option:

  • One at a time, project the draft on a screen after pulling up an email file from each student who is participating.
  • As a class, look at the document projected on the screen.
  • Ask a student (not the original writer) to read the projected work out loud.
  • Ask all students to jot down what they think is working well, what they liked, and where they needed to see or hear more.
  • Have a brief, class-wide discussion reviewing what the students jotted down.
  • Proceed on to the next emailed piece.

This final option is ideal for a high-risk situation, as it is totally touchless. Shorter papers, such as one page or less, would work well. Other shorter options could involve reviewing thesis statements or reviewing citations. While this option does require a projector and screen in the room, there are no other requirements.

Final thoughts

Slowing down and finding a way through a seemingly impossible situation helped me incorporate a valuable activity back into my COVID-era classroom. Peer review teaches students to respond to other people’s writings, and this experience helps writers learn to self-assess their own work. Whether we are facing a pandemic or rescheduling our class modality, peer review can continue to have an important place in our classrooms.

Dr. Jennifer P. Gray is a professor of English and director of the Writing Center at the College of Coastal Georgia. She is a National Writing Project Teacher Consultant and has taught writing courses (8th grade through 6000-level) for more than 22 years. She earned her PhD in curriculum and instruction with a specialization in composition studies from UNC Charlotte. Her dog, Elwood, is her favorite writing companion.