Using Peer Review to Improve Student Writing

As teachers we know that our written work is not ready for publication until it has been reviewed by a variety of colleagues for commentary and edits. External review is needed even for good writers because we have a hard time seeing our own writing errors. Plus, we need that extra feedback to sharpen our ideas, discover new directions to take, and generally elevate our work to publication quality.

Yet we don’t apply this same principle to our students. We expect them to submit their work prior to any outside review as if it were the “final draft.” We then grade our students on that unreviewed work, even though we would never want a journal editor to make a decision on our work based on its early drafts.

Teaching with Technology column

It’s time to start applying the same principles to our students that we apply to ourselves. I have my students submit their work to “colleagues” (i.e., other students) for commentary and revision prior to submission for a grade. Not only does it improve the quality of their work (making it easier for me to grade, by the way), but it improves their writing by forcing them to correct their errors. But even more importantly, it gets them into the practice of asking others to review their writing, which they will need to do later in life when they’re in the workplace, serving on civic committees, and involved in other collaborative endeavors.

Shared Editing Software
One of the easiest tools for facilitating document review is Google Docs. Students simply create a free Google account, and then load their documents into the editors, which look and function much like any word processing software, such as Microsoft Word. The value is that the creator can give anyone else rights to view or edit the work.

I have my students give both a “Paper Partner” and me access to their work once the first draft is done. The Paper Partner, a fellow student, is then required to make comments directly onto the document. The commentary should point out simple writing errors, as well as whether the ideas are easy to follow. Once revised the student submits the paper to me for a grade. I want early access so I can ensure that all of the Paper Partners are doing their job (or more accurately, my job, as I have farmed out much of the drudgery of editing to them).

Shared editing is also great for group projects, since students can all enter edits directly to a single document, rather than deal with the version confusion that comes with passing around email attachments. I require my students to keep a running log of their group’s activity on a Google Doc so that everyone in the project is on the same page, and so that I can peek in to make sure that things are moving along.

It’s time to start practicing what we preach by requiring the same peer review from our students as we expect of one another, and replacing the archaic email attachment system with shared document editing to get it done.

As usual, I welcome your comments, criticisms, and cries of outrage in the comments section of this blog.

This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. Faye

    This is interesting as I am proposing this innovation to my nursing research course, but I was discouraged as this was tried by previous nursing research course instructors, and they have found that peer reviewers, or Paper Partners, as you call them, can be very punitive when correcting or editing papers. How would you lessen the chances of this happening?

    1. Trish

      I have my students read their papers aloud to a small group (usually 2) of listeners. This way the listeners can't see typos and can focus on the ideas. It also helps the author because he/she can hear where a sentence falls flat or becomes convoluted. Of course this does rely providing class time.
      I've never thought of using Google Docs before for this, so I'm eager to try it out. I also like the idea of being able to peek in and see what sort of comments students are giving each other.

    2. John Orlando

      Hello Faye:

      By "punitive" do you mean that the editor used harsh commentary? This is interesting, as I haven't found that problem in my experience. In fact, I've found the opposite, that editors were not willing to identify enough mistakes. I had to emphasize to the class that paper partners are not doing the student any favors by being nice and not pointing out mistakes, as the student pays for that during grading. I also emphasize that even professors need their work looked at by an outside eye before sending it out. This might help students not take offense to critical comments.


    3. Jen

      This is a very important issue. Some students won't be harsh enough, while others might be too harsh. I find the best way to help moderate this is to give the students a rubric to work from. This will help them to structure their peer reviews and it will help them interpret reviews from others. Keep in mind that how you word the rubric can really help to produce more constructive and less destructive criticism. Another way to help with this is to ask the students to include in the review one compliment and one helpful hint (notice the friendly wording).

      Also, it is really important that there be a followup assignment were the student has to make changes based on the review. If they never have to use the review they will likely never read it. You need to encourage students to see the value of the writing process: draft, review, rewrite.

  2. thomas

    This is like comparing chalk and cheese. Although i agree that students should peer review, I think that the preamble is not a suitable axiomatic basis for the argument which follows. These are two entirely different paradigms. There may be a few parallels but not enough to warrant the comparison made. One is not the consequence of the other. That said.

    I have been thinking of ways to introduce peer review in my teaching but it would be a modified version of what is being proposed. I think it is a brilliant idea. It is student focus. My problems however. Is there a reward/compensation for students who peer review. rather, is there a penalty for not peer reviewing. the usual problems of group dynamics must be considered. So students approach the task with enthusiasm, other could not care less. matching a good student with a poor one may be a disaster for the good one. Matching two poor ones may benefit neither of them.

    Another problem is workload of the teacher: the constant monitoring of students, resolving groups disputes, … I need time for me. Where does my responsibility ends and that of the student start? How do we make this "thing" practical and useful. THE DEVIL IS IN THE DETAILS.

    just a thought

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