‘Tis Better to Give and Receive: How to Have More Effective Peer Response Groups
Participating in peer response groups is one of the most troublesome and difficult activities writing students engage in. We here in the SLCC Student Writing Center often hear students complain that they are uncertain when giving feedback to other students and that the feedback they get from their fellow students isn’t useful in their revision process. Researchers in the teaching of writing echo the concerns of these students. In light of the research and of troubles that students face with peer groups, we are going to proceed with two stipulations:
2. Peers need to be trained in order to give and receive feedback effectively.
While I’m not going to argue either of these points, if you refer to the research, you will see that other scholars have established both points in evidence-based research.
Based upon the above points, I believe that giving peer feedback and learning how to make use of that feedback addresses three threshold concepts here at SLCC:
When we discuss our writing (or any writing for that matter) with others, we are engaged in deliberation about the choices, strategies, and moves that writers make. When you get feedback, you make the choice of what to do with that feedback. When you get a response from a reader, you strategize as to how your audience will receive your piece. When you give feedback, you are projecting all the same moves into ways that a writer might decide to implement in their work. In all, the act of working on writing with other people is an act of sustained engagement with your text through staged revision. This revision leads to seeing your writing in new ways through a conversation. You also see your own writing in new ways by reading how other writers have responded to a similar situation (Bruffee, Short Course, 1–8). Finally, giving and receiving feedback helps you and your correspondents understand the contingency of writing, in that you can hear and understand how writers with different perspectives have addressed similar rhetorical contexts.
KEY PRINCIPLES OF PEER GROUP WORK
Most people would assume that receiving feedback is easier than giving feedback, but I would argue that we have to keep several factors in mind when we are getting feedback from our peers and that it is oftentimes the person receiving feedback who creates problems in a session. So, what do you need to do to both give and receive feedback on your writing? Let’s establish some key principles first:
When you are getting feedback, remember that you are the writer: it is your paper and you are in charge.
You make the decisions as to what works and what doesn’t work in your writing. Just because one person or three people suggest that you do something doesn’t mean you have to accept their advice. Now, of course, it is a foolish move not to listen to others, but it might be that they don’t have the best context for responding to your writing, or perhaps they have specific biases that spur their responses.
Peter Elbow and Pat Belanoff point out a paradox with the writer being always right, however: “The reader is always right; the writer is always right” (Sharing and Responding, 62). They explain that the reader’s reaction is valid in and of itself, and it doesn’t make sense to “quarrel with the reader about what’s happening to her” (62). As the writer, you get to decide if you need to do anything about that reaction: “You don’t have to follow her advice. Just listen openly—swallow it all. You can do that better if you realize that you get to take your time and make up your own mind” (62). In other words, you should listen openly to what your readers say but actively engage in thinking about whether what they say or advise will ultimately work for what goals you have for your writing project.
As Candace Spigelman has found in her study of peer groups, “Ultimately, for writing groups to function—and hence for writers to write—they must be committed to both public and private notions of ownership” (132). In other words, you are sharing your writing with others, and they are giving you advice and feedback, but you are the one who gets to make the calls, and you are the one responsible for the end product.
Getting feedback on a draft is an excellent way to see what you need to revise.
When you have others read your writing, they may express confusion or understanding or even elation at what you have written. Those responses help you as a writer determine what is working and what is not working. You can also ask those same people what they might do in order to improve what you have written. You don’t have to accept that advice, as per above, but at least you can hear about options that other people might come up with.
Feedback from others allows you to test your writing on a real audience.
Say that you own a bakery, and have invented what you think is an especially tasty cookie recipe. While you could assume that your tastes are the same as everyone else’s and that they will find your new cookie extremely appealing, most experienced bakers would suggest that you see how the cookie crumbles for potential customers and ask them to try samples and give you feedback. The same goes for writing. You can test whether any potential audience will understand what you are trying to do with your writing by showing it to them and then revising according to their responses.
Giving feedback improves your own writing because discussion of writing is a key principle of revision.
As when others give you feedback, when you give other people feedback you are actively engaging in thinking about how writing works and the choices that writers make. You may come up with novel ideas or solutions that you may use either immediately (kind of like “Hey! I can use that in my own paper!”) or upon a future assignment. You might also learn how to do something new by talking about it with others in a feedback situation (in which case you’re both giving and receiving.) Even if you are working with writers who have very different pieces of writing from your own, you will still gain from the experience of understanding how they are addressing the particular rhetorical context. By discussing writing and its contexts, we expand our writing repertoire and develop skills that other writers have already implemented. We writing teachers call such actions “transfer of learning,” meaning that you learn certain skills or abilities in certain contexts and can apply them later on in new contexts.
Before the Session
Set goals for the session. Researcher Samuel Van Horne found that students who set goals for a writing center session (which is approximate to a peer group session) came away ready to engage in meaningful revision. An example of a goal would be “I want to successfully fulfill the requirements of the assignment” or “I want to convince my reader to take a specific action” or “I want my reader to better understand my subject.” Your goals will depend on your rhetorical context.
Write down specific questions you have about your draft. If your instructor has already given you questions, decide which ones are most important to you. Otherwise, take a few moments to write down questions to ask your readers that you have about your writing. These could range from big questions like “Do you understand my point?” or “Is my evidence convincing?” down to more narrow questions like “Do you notice any glaring errors?” or “Do my ideas follow from each other?” You can, of course, ask very pointed questions, but sometimes you will get better feedback asking open-ended questions that let your readers respond more fully.
Consider what kind of feedback you want to get from your group. What do you want them to focus on? Remember: it is your session, but your readers also need the freedom to respond how they see fit. Elbow and Belanoff note this as the second paradox in giving and receiving feedback: “The writer must be in charge; the writer must sit back quietly too” (Sharing and Responding, 62). (I’ll write more on listening later.)
During the Session
Use guidelines from your instructor. Your instructor will most likely provide you with some guidelines or even questions to use for your session. Sometimes you have to fill out a sheet and turn it in with your portfolio, drafts, or final draft. These sheets are meant to help you in the session since your instructors know that most students don’t have a lot of experience giving and receiving feedback.
Discuss the goals you have for this session openly. Your group isn’t full of mind readers. Let them know what you want to focus on and why.
Take notes. It is super-easy to get so caught up in a response session and forget to take notes about what your readers are saying. I encourage you to write notes right onto your draft. If you are working with an electronic copy, you can use your word processor’s commenting feature.
Listen. When we hear people discussing our work, we naturally want to join in and talk about it too. Maybe we want to explain why we did or didn’t do something. Maybe we want to clarify a particular section. Maybe we just don’t want to hear what others have to say about our writing. That last option, of course, is why we need to be quiet when others are talking about our work. We need to listen to our readers’ reactions and not talk over them because we are defensive about it.
Try not to be defensive. Getting feedback on your writing can be an intimidating experience. Many writers tell us that they are uncomfortable sharing their writing with others and that they feel that they are being judged. Being defensive in a writing group is understandable because of these fears, but keep in mind that your readers have good intentions. They aren’t out to embarrass you. They want to help you improve as a writer. Now, of course, if you feel someone in your group is being belligerent or purposefully mean to you or other group members, you should report that to your professor. If, as well, you are feeling a bit overwhelmed by your readers’ feedback, you can tell them that, and that you want to stop.
As Elbow and Belanoff put it, “Don’t be afraid to stop them if they start giving you what you don’t want … you may need to ask readers to hold back all criticism for a piece that you feel tender about” (63). For example, if you feel overwhelmed, you should say that. You might say something like “I appreciate what you are saying about my lack of evidence to support my view, but I’m getting overwhelmed with all the comments. Let me do some more research and then get back with you.” That kind of statement doesn’t attack or insult your reviewer but does let them know that you need some space.
Ask questions. If you don’t understand what your readers are saying, ask clarifying questions. You want to have a delicate balance of listening to your readers and not being defensive, but definitely ask questions when you really are confused or want some advice on what to do next.
Don’t argue. You can ask questions, but it is pointless to engage in an argument about what you’ve done with your readers. They aren’t the ones who have to make revisions. You are. Time spent arguing with them that they are “reading it wrong” is better spent trying to understand why they are reading it the way that they do. So, for example, instead of trying to justify something that you’ve chosen to do, or to argue its benefits, you can acknowledge what your readers have said and move on. Trying to tell a person that they are reading something “incorrectly” isn’t as important as trying to understand why they read it the way that they did. That will help you revise, while spending a lot of time convincing someone that they are wrong just creates an atmosphere of hostility. Repeating or summarizing what the person said and then asking them if it’s correct will also help to make sure that you heard them correctly. You may also find that you disagree with their advice for any given reason. That’s your choice.
Don’t start with grammar. Why not? People assume that grammar is their only problem (see Reger; Severino; Matusuda & Cox). Too often writers think that grammar that is the only thing that they need to work on. While clear communication and grammatical sense is important, writers often spend far too much time obsessing over grammar and not enough time developing their writing. Also, remember that your peer response group isn’t just about “fixing” your paper. You are there to discuss it with other writers—to make it better and to address your purpose and your audience. You are there to expand on ideas or come up with completely new ones. You are there to improve your writing overall, not just to fix small things. An added benefit of taking a revision-based approach to your writing is that you notice grammatical errors and correct them during that process.
After the Session
Summarize the comments. Look over your notes and write them out in a coherent and concise form. The act of summarizing the notes can help you to revisit what you just experienced and help you to make decisions as to what you want to change in your writing. In that sense, summarizing leads nicely to creating a revision plan.
Make a revision plan. While making a revision plan sounds like a weighty process, it actually can be quite simple. All you need to do is make a list of things that you are going to work on. For example, if your readers found your organization confusing or disconnected, your revision plan could be as simple as “mess around with how it is organized” or even “reorganize it.”
Visit the Student Writing Center for more feedback! Ok, you don’t have to visit the Student Writing Center. But we do suggest that, once you have revised, you show your writing to someone else, get more feedback, and test if the changes you made work. Ideally, you would be able to show it to your group again. We in the Student Writing Center realize, however, that your group isn’t always going to be able to meet with you for follow-up feedback. We are available, however, for that feedback. It is a good idea to bring your feedback summary, revision plan, and more questions to your session so that a Writing Consultant can give you more effective feedback.
Divide your time equally. You need to make sure that everyone’s writing is treated fairly in your session. Dividing up the time equally is essential to that fair treatment. You’ll also need to make sure that someone watches the clock during each individual’s portion of the time, and that it not be the person whose paper is being responded to. The timekeeper should be someone else because the writer has enough to do already, and adding clock-watching can be distracting. The entire group, however, needs to agree to stick to the time limits.
Read papers aloud. In general, it is best to read the papers aloud, but sometimes due to the length of a piece you may not have time to read the whole piece aloud. The reasoning behind reading aloud is simple: it means that everyone is concentrating on the same piece of writing. It also has the added benefit of changing the modality of the piece so that the writer can read it herself in a different way. Your instructor may wish for you to bring copies of your piece to your group session. Your instructor may also wish for you to work in different configurations, such as pairs. While I would always advocate for reading aloud for the reasons listed above, there may be situations where you either have to read silently, or your instructor wishes you to do so.
Be positive. As mentioned before, showing writing to others is a hard business. It is easy for writers to get discouraged and down on themselves. While you can’t always be positive in your comments, you should maintain a positive attitude about the feedback you are giving. It is too easy to think of criticism as only a negative or destructive thing. Criticism in the sense we are using it in peer groups is a positive or formative event. It helps the writer to improve.
Ask questions. If you don’t understand something, ask a question about it. If you don’t know why someone wrote what they wrote, ask questions. Asking a question is sometimes better than making a contextless judgment. A writer, however, may not know the answer to your question, may not feel the need to answer, or may ask you another question instead. That’s her choice.
Use guidelines from your instructor or text book. It can be easy to ignore the guidelines or handouts your instructor gives you and just do your own thing. You should also pay attention to what the writer wants you to respond to.
Be specific. Rather than giving generic comments like “That’s good,” or “I think you could do more research,” point specifically to sections of the writer’s piece. A comment like “I think you need more evidence for this point in this paragraph” is more effective than “You need more evidence.” It helps the writer have a strong context for the feedback you are giving.
Point out things that work―not just things that don’t. Similarly, it is easy to only focus on stuff in writing that doesn’t work. A writer also needs to know what is working in their text. Sometimes you might find that your group members all have written excellent responses to the assignment and you don’t have anything to criticize. Pointing out what works for you is a good way to address not having anything to say and is useful for the writer.
Don’t jump on grammar. As I’ve said before, a lot of writers falsely believe that the only issue that needs to be discussed in their writing is the grammar. These beliefs often are founded in how people have responded to their writing in the past, in particular how, I am sad to say, some teachers have responded to their writing (Gillespie and Lerner, 54; Reger 40-41). Some teachers seem to believe that if they do not “mark up” a paper, they are not doing their jobs. They feel compelled to point out every mistake, no matter if it impacts the meaning of the writer’s text. Such behavior tends to exaggerate the importance of grammar. They also often don’t explain why a particular error is a problem, nor how to correct it.
Perhaps worst of all, some inexperienced readers and teachers point out grammatical problems that are not actual problems at all. All this leads students to have a hyper-corrective attitude toward their writing, and often to have a defeatist attitude, feeling that they can’t even put simple sentences together (Shaughnessy, 117-128). This attitude is exacerbated even more for non-native speakers of English, who, while attempting to write with more nuance and complexity, are often forced into assimilating their language use (Matsuda and Cox 45-47) by well-intended readers/teacher who appropriate their text (Severino, 51-52). You can see, therefore, that jumping on the grammar bandwagon will just keep reinforcing the belief that the only thing to talk about in regards to writing is grammar.
Sure, some writers do have grammar problems. Some of those problems interfere with your understanding of a text. Those are the grammar problems that matter most. If you, as a reader, can’t understand something, you need to say that. “I don’t follow you here,” you might say in pointing to a particular sentence. “I don’t understand what you mean” is even fine. Pointing out simple errors or typos early on in the process isn’t as important, and, as you can see, it might just get in the way of the writer working on formative development of their writing. There will always be time for proofreading later.
The late Ron Maxwell, a scholar who advocated for peer feedback, was once asked to provide advice for people who were new to giving feedback to writers: “Respect the writer,” he said in his avuncular way. “Respect what the writer brings to you. Respect the writer’s courage for bringing it. … Make suggestions for change with all the tact and modesty that you can muster out of respect for the writer’s tenderness. Because it is hard to be criticized, but out of criticism comes improvement and development and change. We want to foster an appetite for more criticism.” If you respect your fellow group members and trust them to give you honest, caring feedback and they trust you to give them honest, caring feedback, you will be making great strides toward having successful peer group sessions. Caring may seem like an overly emotional word to use, but it represents an approach to working with others that leads to positive outcomes. If you care about your group members and their success, you have an investment in the session yourself. That will lead to the kind of courageous criticism Maxwell is talking about: modest, tactful, and sensitive criticism that allows you and your group members to learn and to grow as writers.
APPENDIX: RELEVANT RESEARCH
Carol Berkenkotter found that students “might not necessarily reap the advantages [teachers] like to imagine” (318), given that participants in her study were often unable to give constructive suggestions or gained no “help” from peers. Researchers such as Diana George, Karen Spear, and Jane Brown have all taken issue with peer response groups and offered a variety of solutions. You will note that a significant number of the scholarly articles cited here on peer group work are from the 1980s. It was during this time that peer feedback came to the fore in writing classes, and teachers of writing started to implement it in their writing classes. Before that time, it was rare to spend time in class giving other students feedback. The influx of scholarship on peer groups ebbed in the ’90s, and aside from the work of Peter Elbow and Pat Belanoff, it is not a subject often taken up these days. The above scholars as well as Elizabeth Flynn, Thomas Newkirk, and, most importantly, Elbow and Belanoff, have found that there are significant benefits to peer feedback as long as students have sufficient training in how to give (and I would argue) how to receive feedback. It is important to note that most of the research in peer groups these days is within the field of TESOL or teaching of English to non-native speakers. The most current research has empirically demonstrated positive benefits of peer groups on students (see the two What Works Clearinghouse pamphlets). Even research that is critical of the foundations and ill-informed practice of peer feedback (Bruffee Collaborative Learning, Hall), still argues that it is beneficial, as they offer suggestions on how peer groups can still be effectively used in the classroom: “We assign peer response, but we don’t teach it. … We must teach peer response by engaging with our students in the practices of reading, writing, and talking, rather than using peer response as a neutral tool. Instead of replicating school practices that invite students to guess and to give teachers what we want” (Hall).
Berkenkotter, Carol. “Student Writers and Their Sense of Authority over Texts.” College Composition and Communication 35 (Oct. 1984): 312–319.
Brown, Jane. “Helping Students Help Themselves: Peer Evaluation of Writing.” Curriculum Review 23 (Feb. 1984): 47–50.
Bruffee, Kenneth. Collaborative Learning: Higher Education, Interdependence, and the Authority of Knowledge, 2nd ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1992.
Bruffee, Kenneth. A Short Course in Writing. Cambridge, MA: Winthrop, 1972.
Elbow, Peter and Pat Belanoff. Sharing and Responding. New York: Random House, 1989.
Flynn, Elizabeth. “Students as Readers of Their Classmates’ Writing: some Implications for Peer Critiquing.” Writing Instructor 3 (Spring 1984): 120–128.
“English 1010: Introduction to Writing Syllabus.” August 25, 2016. Salt Lake Community College English Department. Handout.
George, Diana. “Working with Peer Groups in the Composition Classroom.” College Composition and Communication 35 (Oct. 1984): 320–326.
Hall, Mark. “The Politics of Peer Response.” Writing Instructor, 01 July 2009. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=eric&AN=EJ890609&site=ehost-live.
Matsuda, Paul and Michelle Cox. “Reading an ESL Writer’s Text.” ESL Writers: A Guide for Writing Center Tutors. Second Ed. Shanti Bruce and Ben Rafoth, eds. Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Boynton/Cook Heinemann, 2009. 42–50.
Maxwell, Ron. “Ron Maxwell’s Advice for Tutors.” NCPTW 2015 channel on Youtube. (24 Jun 2015). youtu.be/wLTkrId2nh8
Newkirk, Thomas. “Direction and Misdirecton in Peer Response.” College Composition and Communication 35 (Oct. 1984): 300–311.
Reger, Jeff. “Postcolonialism, Acculturation, and the Writing Center.” Young Scholars in Writing. 6 (2009). 39–46. arc.lib.montana.edu/ojs/index.php/Young-Scholars-In-Writing/article/view/127/83
Severino, Carol. “Avoiding Appropriation.” ESL Writers: A Guide for Writing Center Tutors. Second Ed. Shanti Bruce and Ben Rafoth, eds. Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Boynton/Cook Heinemann, 2009. 51–65.
Shaughnessy, Mina P. Errors & Expectations: A Guide for the Teacher of Basic Writing. New York: Oxford UP, 1979.
Spear, Karen. Sharing Writing: Peer Response Groups in English Classes. Protsmouth: Boynton/Cook, 1988.
Spiegelman, Candace. Across Property Lines: Textual Ownership in Writing Groups. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2000.
What Works Clearinghouse, (ED). Peer Tutoring and Response Groups. What Works Clearinghouse Intervention Report. What Works Clearinghouse, What Works Clearinghouse, 09 July 2007. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=eric&AN=ED499296&site=ehost-live.
What Works Clearinghouse, (ED). English Language Learners. What Works Clearinghouse Topic Report. What Works Clearinghouse, What Works Clearinghouse, 30 July 2007. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=eric&AN=ED497628&site=ehost-live.
 See the appendix at the end of this guide for a review of the relevant research.