Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Peer Review, By Request

In comments to a post earlier this week, Life and Times wrote the following:
"And regarding peer review/peer editing, how do you work that? I was recently vetting a seminar syllabus with peers and their opinions were that it was a waste of time (because I was going to "grade" the peer reviews) and that it's silly to have people who don't know how to write try to tell other people how to write. My answer has been-- then you probably didn't teach peer editing properly and just because someone doesn't know how to write doesn't mean they don't know how to read and think about what someone else is writing. But I'd love to hear your take on it."
Well, L&T, thanks for asking! Not in the least because it means a non-bulletted post is required of me, and I know that my readers will be pleased to read something written in paragraphs and that is more than just me babbling about my life! But so now on to your question.

Peer review, like any sort of group activity that one might require of students, may seem like a waste of time, whether to instructors or to students, depending upon how much investment the instructors/students have in a hierarchical model for classroom instruction. If one believes that the instructor holds all of the knowledge and that the instructor's job is to fill up students with that knowledge, peer review or any student-centered work makes absolutely no sense, for just the reasons that your colleagues noted. If students have no power over their learning, and no power over how they do on assignments, then really, there is no point in putting the power to improve their writing into their own hands. They ultimately can't improve their own writing: only the instructor can do that, and generally the only way that the instructor can do that is by showing them all of the things that are wrong with their writing.

For me, this is a really problematic way of looking at the learning process. And I would argue that your peers would find such a way of looking at the learning process in their own lives problematic - I mean, what were you doing in vetting the syllabus but participating in peer review yourselves? If your peers' viewpoint about peer review had any validity, you shouldn't have been looking at your syllabus with them at all but looking at it with some eminent professor who would tell you the "right" way to design a syllabus and then you would just copy that eminent professor's strategies for student learning and any ideas that you had about how to run a course would be secondary to the authority of that eminent professor, right? So what gives your peers the authority to tell you that peer review is a bad idea when they themselves are participating in peer review of your work? For me, peer review is about working in a small way to empower students and to advance a model for student learning that is not entirely hierarchical. It also shows students that writing is about participating in an ongoing conversation - it's not about writing in isolation with only one reader but rather about writing to a broader audience of people who are interested in a particular area of inquiry. Academic research is built on a peer review process, and for me, part of educating students is about letting them into that process, in however small a way.

That said, peer review can be a total disaster if one can't convince the members of the classroom community to be on board with it. If peer review consists of just having students read each others' papers and make some marginal comments without instruction, it's going to be viewed as a total waste of time and it will be a total waste of time - not only for students but for the instructor. So, how does one avoid that? How does one do peer review so that it really helps students to write better papers?

1. I think peer review always works best in classes where students are used to working together in small groups on other tasks aside from peer review.
The trick is to get students to believe that the work they do independently is actually teaching them a skill. For example, in my writing classes, I have activities built into the course peer review that include having students work on making a reverse outline of a reading assignment. We then come together and look at the reverse outlines they've constructed, and I show them how such a practice can help with note-taking and with processing difficult secondary sources. The activity isn't busy-work - it's about teaching them how to read carefully and with a purpose. Because it's a group activity, they can see how others approach the same material, and they can learn how to think analytically about a reading assignment. Because they've already done such an activity (and this is only one example), by the time we get to peer review, they get that I'm teaching them how to do revision for themselves through the peer review process - that the activity they will do with their classmates is showing them how to engage with their own work before they turn it in for a grade. It makes the process less mysterious.

2. But in order for the process to be less mysterious, that means that it must be strictly regulated.
I give students specific questions to which to respond in all peer review activities, just as I do in group work situations. It's all about accomplishing discrete tasks - about breaking the piece of writing apart and looking for things that I will look for when I grade. While I don't formally grade all peer review assignments, I do monitor how students do with peer review, and I talk to students about how to improve as reviewers of their peers' work. I scold students who don't take the process seriously. I praise students who do very well with it. Doing well on peer review is a huge part of how I evaluate their participation in the course, and I'm very clear about that.

3. Moreover, it's important to explain to students what they will get out of being careful reviewers of each others' work.
Good students often feel burdened by peer review. Just as they often resist group work. They've been burned by these practices before. So I make a big deal out of the fact that by reading one another's work they can get ideas about how to approach problems in their own writing or how to be more creative in their own writing. If it's true that reading makes one a better writer (which I believe is true), it only makes sense that students should get the chance to read writing that responds to the same assignment to which they respond in their own writing. Moreover, it's often easier to critique someone else's writing than it is to critique one's own because one is not committed to it or absorbed in it in the same way that one is committed to and absorbed in one's own writing. This, then, can provide distance when one returns to one's own writing. A piece of writing becomes something that one works on - not something that one pulls out of oneself. As evidence for this, I talk about my own experiences and the way in which I believe (and I do believe this) that reading student writing has had an incredible influence on my own writing since becoming a professor. No, my students are not writing at as sophisticated a level as I am expected to do, but by engaging with their writing 32 weeks a year, I'm much more attuned to my own writing issues when I approach my own drafts. I've learned to approach my own academic writing in terms of process much more easily than I did when I was a student. As I tell my students, I want to give them that opportunity, which is one that I did not have myself when I was a student.

4. I think that peer review works best when there are multiple bites at the peer review apple - where there are multiple kinds of review that happen.
This is one that is less easy to achieve in a course that doesn't have an explicit writing component. In my writing classes, though, I tend to devote a lot of time to a range of peer review practices. For example, let's take how "peer review" works on the research paper assignment in one of my writing classes. Really, students are doing some kind of "peer review" for the last three weeks of the semester. For two weeks, students do presentations about their research projects. They give a handout with their working thesis statement and their outline for the paper, and they present for about 8 minutes about how their project is coming. Then, they have the opportunity to ask questions of the class and then the class has the opportunity to ask questions of the presenter. This gives them an opportunity to get feedback on their projects before they have a working draft. At the same time, it gives other students a sense of the range of projects on which their peers are working. I also have students assigned to peer review groups throughout the semester, and one week before the paper is due, they give a copy of a partial draft to each member of their groups. They've been working with these groups throughout the semester, and so they have an established comfort level with them. Over the weekend, they are to read their group members' work and to respond to it. Then, in the final two class meetings of the semester, I have more focused peer review where students work first with their groups and then with partners. In this way, peer review is a process just as writing is a process. Moreover, I emphasize to students that this takes the stress out of writing a paper at the last minute, which I think is one way of getting them on board with it. Now, in a non-writing class, this isn't really possible to achieve in the same way. What I do in my upper-level course (not a writing course) is that I give students the opportunity to discuss in class what challenges they are facing, and I give them the opportunity to discuss online (we have a class discussion board) their topics and their progress. We don't do in-class peer review. Still, though, there are checkpoints built into the syllabus that give them a sense of where I think they should be with their papers, and I think that's a good thing.

5. Finally, I think peer review gives me the opportunity to respond somewhat publicly to student work, and I think it's good for students to see how I respond to their peers.
To some extent, this last item is a self-serving one. Since I've started giving feedback in class to peer review groups and partners and feedback to research presentations in front of the class as a whole, my evaluations no longer have comments that indicate that students think I'm harder on them than I am on their classmates. This is always a good thing - to have them realize that you're equally hard on them all :)

I suspect that the resistance you got to building peer review into your seminar in part comes from the fact that you're not explicitly teaching a writing course. Peer review - done effectively - takes time, and it takes a lot of work on the front end for the instructor to make it a good experience for the class. Many would argue that this is not a wise use of time in a non-writing class. Even I might argue that in the context of my literature classes - I expect students to know how to do this stuff in my literature classes without as much guidance from me. My aims in my lit classes are, to some extent, different from my aims in my writing classes. That said, I've built more opportunities for peer review and the teaching of writing into my lit classes because I think it is good for students - even if those opportunities aren't as formal as the ones I use in my writing courses. And I think that my students do come out of all of my classes - both writing and literature - much better writers than they were when they came in, and part of that has to do with the fact that I show them how to be better writers and I expect them to think about what it means to write in an academic context. While that may seem obvious, I don't think that those things happen in a lot of classes. Yes, students are expected to write papers, but I'm not sure they're often expected to think about what it means to write those papers and to think about that writing as more than hoop-jumping.

So those are my thoughts. I hope that answers your question!


Life&Times said...

Thanks so much for sharing this. I've had really good experiences with peer review and re-creating an "intellectual community" as an undergrad, which is perhaps why I like the idea of incorporating the peer review process. I think that there's a need for professors to be explicit about what we hope to get out of an exercise-- and the reason teachers hide this is often because we don't know *how* to articulate the goals always. I think I had the words for some of the goals of the peer review process, but not all of those that you mentioned.

Actually, the class that I was designing this for was intended as an upper-div writing-in-our-field kind of course rather than a survey in history. The friends that were most opposed to this were those who had seen it being used in a large survey (which makes no sense to me whatsoever-- for some of the reasons implied by what you say makes for a successful peer review process).

So thanks so much!!!

Sisyphus said...

Wow, this is very dedicated --- sounds like you are a great teacher! (I also can see why you get so tired out.)

I haven't used peer review since I taught comp, although now I teach lots of 101-entry level writing classes in the WS and other departments.

One point I will make to support those who don't like peer review is that, based on my experience, poor writers can only catch really obvious mistakes in others' writing --- if their organization is a mess, they don't seem to be able to help other people organize; if they love sentence fragments, they don't see sentence problems in others' essays. I did have better luck if I asked them very very specific questions and stuff to look at, but I had to be careful to put students with similar writing levels or writing problems in the same group.

Dr. Crazy said...

S- I agree about organizing groups carefully - when I do peer review groups, I pay special attention to how the group fits together, then with later assignments I let them choose their own (as they hate always being assigned groups). This seems to be a strategy that works. And yes, I'm exhausted !