3 Harsh Truths about In-Class Peer Review

3 Harsh Truths about In-Class Peer Review
Contributed By

Steven Hopkins

Graduate Teaching Associate at Arizona State University

3 Harsh Truths about In-Class Peer Review

Posted in Pro Tips | November 06, 2017

Spending class time asking students to read and respond to each other’s work can serve to create meaningful community-building experiences for the students, and if we teachers are paying attention to the subtle social exchanges involved, every in-class peer review activity can be a learning experience for both teachers and students.

That being said, in my seven years of doing these kinds of activities, I’ve found that there are plenty of opportunities for this potentially productive activity to either feel like busy work or to go off in unexpected and sometimes unwelcome directions.

In order to hopefully help you make more efficient use of the time you spend with peer review sessions, here are a three harsh truths I’ve learned that I want to share with you.

First, as I’ve watched my students' interactions over the years, I’ve learned ...

#1 Students Usually Don't Trust Each Other

Time and time again, I’ve seen that students have often been reluctant to take on the role of editor for their peers. As a culture, we often think of teachers as the holders and distributors of knowledge, and this can make peer-review seem out of place for them. Even as we make efforts to create student-centered classrooms, students may still ask themselves, “Who am I to make meaningful changes or comments on my peers’ papers? I’m learning just like they are.”

While this may not be true for all students, many may have a difficult time even feeling the confidence to help their fellow classmates improve their writing and often feel like the blind leading the blind.

Sometimes you have a few students who are comfortable taking on this role, but even if a student does feel like they have enough expertise to help their fellow students ...

#2 Criticizing Other People’s Writing is Unpopular and Embarrassing 

It’s not hard to see that the ability to write well is indelibly connected to a person’s sense of worth. Spelling errors and mistakes in grammar and punctuation are very often equated with stupidity or lack of education. When students are faced with the task of criticizing their peers' ability to write, they are sometimes more likely to withhold the advice to save face or to help their peers save face. Pointing out grammar mistakes is not a great way to make friends.

On the flip side, people who offer corrections to others grammar and spelling are often seen as overly serious or needlessly critical. (They get called “grammar nazis,” which isn’t such a nice thing to be called).

When I’ve asked students to critique each other's writing, I feel like I am putting them in a lose/lose situation—they can either do something that could potentially hurt another person’s self-worth, or be seen as knit-picky and pedantic. Neither role is comfortable, and there isn’t much guarantee that taking on those roles will even help their peers get better writing.

Telling students to help each other improve their writing can sometimes feel so off-putting, that I’ve seen students find anything to talk about, and I mean anything, except for their writing.

Ultimately, I’ve found that ...

#3 If Your Purpose for Doing Peer Review is to Improve the Papers, You’ll Probably End Up Disappointed 

Peer review should be about improving the writer by helping them to learn how to read more closely, and to learn to identify ways in which a piece of writing does or doesn’t accomplish what it intends to do and why.

You need to help students have the experience of coming face to face with the effectiveness of their writing.

I’ve done this in a few ways that hopefully you can use to create more meaningful experiences for your students.

First, have your students read their own writing out loud to each other. Or even better yet, have their peers read their own writing to them. I often have students do their writing in a Discussion Board on Schoology so that they can easily locate their own work, and the work of their peers. I’ll often pull the page up on a projector so I know the whole class is looking at the same piece of writing, and have the student read their own, or another student’s writing, out loud to the class.

As they do so, I tell them to pay attention to places where they or their peer becomes confused or trips up or gets lost. I tell them to listen for times when their readers, or they themselves, get bored. These situations will be a strong indicator to them about whether their writing is accomplishing its task.

This can be done in pairs as well. When students hear their own writing being read out loud, without their ability to immediately correct it, they begin to see how their writing something takes a new life that they can’t control once they’ve written in.

This ultimately helps them to learn to anticipate and plan for moments of confusion, which can make their writing better by helping them reach more audiences more easily.


About the Author


Steven Hopkins is a Graduate Teaching Associate and former Assistant Director of Writing Programs in the Department of English at Arizona State University. He is currently completing his dissertation on teaching in college English classrooms. He is the host and producer of Writing Questionspodcast, available on iTunes, Stitcher, and SoundCloud.com. 


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