Making a Peer Review More Than a Waste of Time
Students, you are here because you have probably been assigned a peer review. You may also be looking at this title as an oxymoron. In this short video, however, I hope to give you some insight into what you can both give and receive in a peer review to make this a positive experience for your writing development. As you watch the short presentation, please keep an open mind and consider what you can use in your upcoming reviews that will allow you to change your perspective on getting and giving criticism.
Ok, you have to do peer reviews. You know this is going to be a terrible waste of time, right? If your previous experiences with peer review were anything like mine, then it went something like this:
- I had to bring in three copies of my “polished” writing.
- I reluctantly moved into a small group and stared at the other members.
- The teacher made us trade our papers with the other members of my group.
- I was supposed to read them and find two things that were good and at least two that were bad.
- I quickly read the papers and marked some stuff that seemed wrong, then I got my papers back from all of the other students and they had given comments like “good introduction,” “I like your ideas,” “it’s great!” They marked a few spelling or grammar errors to fix.
- I went home and fixed those and then my stupid paper was done. ☺
Unfortunately, I hadn’t actually reconsidered how I had written anything. I wasn’t sure if it was important or meaningful, and my peers had not really commented on what I said, only what the teacher wanted. The feedback I had gotten from the other students and even the comments I made on my peers’ papers were meaningless and confused since I was just doing the requirement for the teacher, so I wasn’t interested in what they were saying and didn’t really know what I could possibly say. In fact, I didn’t feel like I even understood what we were supposed to be doing on the paper.
But now, you have to do a peer review again. “Why?” you may ask. Well, as a long-time teacher of so many students at SLCC, I will try to explain the benefits of a peer review and then how you can actually have a positive experience with the review process.
- You can see other students’ work and how they interpreted the assignment.
- You can have another person see your work who has no authority to grade your work, so there is much less risk.
- You can use this opportunity to find questions and get them answered.
- You can learn valuable workforce skills of collaboration and learning to give effective feedback.
However, if you just give the same feedback that you always have before, then you will continue to find this to be a fruitless, frustrating, and time-wasting activity.
A lot of what makes any learning activity better is preparation. So before you begin reading their writing, there are some things to understand.
UNDERSTAND YOUR POSITION
As a peer: A peer is a person in the same power position. You have no authority to demand that a person has to change. You probably have about the same knowledge and abilities as the person whose paper you will review. You don’t have any special skills that allow you to give special feedback aside from being a person with a brain and an opinion. Your position is only to offer suggestions and recommendations.
As a reader: As a student, you may feel inadequate to review another student’s work. If you were supposed to grade their paper, you would be correct; however, you already give evaluations on so many other things that you are not an expert in. You discuss movies, give evaluations on restaurants, assess professional sports teams and how they are run. The only qualification you have in those regards is that you as a person know what you enjoy and what bores you. You know if you are confused or inspired. As a reader, you are not grading on if they did the assignment but more if what they produced works for an audience.
As a safeguard: Often we are worried about giving criticism to another person because we don’t want to hurt their feelings. Imagine then that your friend is about to give a speech to a large audience. They ask you how they look. Imagine that they have missed a button on their shirt, or their hair is out of place, or their zipper is down. What kind of friend would not tell them that they needed to fix their appearance?! Now consider that they are going to be publishing their writing; it is going to a teacher to be graded. Wouldn’t you want to give that person all the advice you could, so they would be as successful as possible?
UNDERSTAND THE ASSIGNMENT
Now that you understand your position, you need to make sure you understand the writing situation.
Requirements: What are the absolute requirements for the writing assignment? You should have them in front of you while you are reviewing the paper; also, if you don’t understand them yourself, make sure that you ask questions of the instructor.
Intentions: Besides understanding the specific requirements, you should have an idea of why the teacher is giving this assignment. What is the purpose of the writing and what is the instructor hoping for as a result? For example, is this supposed to be creative, or informative?
Learning outcomes: What is the assignment trying to teach? If you know what the purpose of the writing is, you can give better feedback, by helping your peer in their writing development. It happens often that we write to the requirements, but miss the point of the writing.
UNDERSTAND THE AUTHOR
Background: The better you understand who the author is, the better you will understand their writing.
Voice: When a person is writing, it is important to be able to hear their own style in the writing. If a person is faking a paper or if they are using terms or even copying texts, then being able to recognize their voice is important to make a paper more authentic and honest.
Purposes: Recognize what drives the author of the piece. It’s important as you give feedback to give it in a way that it will be received. If the person is just looking for some key points, then too much feedback can be overwhelming, but if they are lost, if you don’t give direction, they will be frustrated as well.
UNDERSTAND THE SITUATION OF THE PIECE
I know that we just discussed a lot of things that may seem like the situation of the writing, but in school the writing situation is often different than the assignment situation. The student is writing to the teacher, about a subject they don’t care about, to get a good grade, but the writing may be to write an opinion letter to a congressman on a recent law that was passed. Because school often puts us in hypothetical situations, it is important that you understand your peer’s writing situation.
Audience: Who is the writing supposed to be written for?
Purpose: What is the specific purpose of the writing: persuasive, informative, instructive, or entertaining?
Subject: What is the writing supposed to be about? Do they stay on that subject?
Context: Is it clear what, who, why, when, where, and how this writing is situated?
Ok, I know that’s a lot. It’s almost too much, you may say. I am not giving this to you as a list. These are just understandings. You have to remember that you are there to help. You can only give what you see, but if you realize how helpful you can be to your peer, you will be prepared to make a very positive impact on their writing.
Now that you have your own position firmly in your mind, you can read the paper. Make sure you have a place to write down ideas. If you can write on their paper or give online feedback or even if you are just discussing the ideas, if you have an idea or share a thought, but you don’t write it down, YOUR IDEA WILL BE FORGOTTEN!
Making positive comments: It’s important that the person you are reviewing hears what is going well. Discuss parts specifically that you liked. Considering the purpose of the paper, what informed, instructed, persuaded or entertained you in the text? Use “because” in every sentence.
EXAMPLE: I liked the introduction because…
If you only say you liked something or didn’t like something, it doesn’t help the writer to know what worked for them.
Giving constructive criticism: Constructive criticism is identifiable because it doesn’t just point out what’s wrong, but it gives suggestions on how it could be better.
- Focus on requirements: First of all, did they meet the requirements? If they missed something, be sure to point it out. Those are points they will miss for sure if you don’t help.
- Focus on meaning: After you know that you have covered the requirements, look at what they are saying. Is it clear what they are saying? Did they give enough evidence to support their ideas? Were there parts that you wanted to hear more, were there parts that you still had questions? Put those comments in to give ideas of how to revise their paper.
- Look for “speed bumps”: Something I like to explain is to look for speed bumps in the writing. When you are reading something, was there anything that seemed to stop your reading, that confused you, that bored you, that distracted you, that tied your tongue? Pay attention to what your brain is doing. It will usually tell you when something could be revised. Remember that when you give feedback, you don’t have to be right, just point out your thoughts and let the author decide if they want to take your advice or not.
Peer reviews can be some of the most rewarding parts of writing. Sharing with others can make us feel vulnerable, but getting feedback that encourages and directs us to be able to have a stronger message helps us to feel more confident about what we are writing and more likely to be excited to publish.