As we move closer to the second year of the Covid pandemic, it has become something of a truism that online education is not as effective as face-to-face instruction. A September UCLA Health study, for instance, reported that 93% of undergraduates surveyed “were having trouble coping with pandemic stressors.” Those challenges have been especially hard on first-year college students. Writing in Insider Higher Ed, Maria Carrasco cites an ACT report in which students refer to issues with technology, as well as “lack of motivation, difficulty retaining information and trouble understanding concepts without ‘hands-on’ experience as their biggest hurdles.”
There’s no doubt that online instruction presents obstacles for many students, whether it’s a lack of reliable internet access or an inability to make human connections through digital platforms. And yet e-learning, in some form or another, appears here to stay. As we come to terms with that fact, it’s worth identifying those areas where online education is most effective. In first-year composition, peer review of drafts is a particularly productive locus for communal digital learning.
Peer review has long been a staple of in-person composition courses, and for good reason. It’s a fairly low-stakes—usually ungraded—activity that allows students to stretch their wings as both writers and readers of expository prose. When it is going well, peer review encourages students to think on their feet and to offer insights that may not have occurred to their instructor. Presenting a draft to their classmates makes it clear to that student writing has a real, live audience.
And yet peer review in the face-to-face classroom can too easily veer into a conversational free-for-all, where talk about last weekend’s activities overshadows discussions of an essay’s organization and purpose. Unfortunately, even when students stick to the topic, their advice may counter to our process pedagogy (e.g., “This is great as it is—don’t change anything”). Moreover, monitoring and shaping the progress of five or more separate peer groups scattered around a classroom can also be too much for a single instructor to handle. Even in the smaller corequisite section, when it’s easier for the instructor to help maintain focus, too often, in my experience, entropy prevails.
In contrast, asynchronous online peer groups offer a more deliberative revision experience. Whereas the in-person peer review session may, despite the best planning, quickly go off-track, the online peer group is driven by the questions the instructor provides. Instructors have a written record of who has commented and what they have said. Helpful advice can be fostered and questionable advice can be addressed in a way that honors the commenting student’s thinking, yet guides it towards an approach more in keeping with the instructor’s pedagogy.
The asynchronous format also provides students with more time to respond. Too often, in face-to-face peer review, the glibbest person takes over the discussion, with shy students effectively shut out of the conversation. However, the most thoughtful peer comments tend to be the product of careful rereading and reflection, and online peer review enables students to sit with their observations rather than blurting them out in a competitive fashion.
Carrasco points out that “students from low-income families and…first-generation students had limited access to both technology and the internet,” and I in no way want to minimize the complications facing students trying to reach what Katz et al. call “remote learning proficiency.” Not surprisingly, students with difficulty accessing digital spaces are frequently among those most eager for in-person instruction. However, students who, for whatever reason, do find themselves in an online course, are better served by an asynchronous than a synchronous experience when it comes to developing “workarounds for spotty internet and malfunctioning devices.”
Once they are connected, online peer review allows students to comment on each other’s work in a far more robust manner than those of us who came of age in the analog classroom could ever have imagined. Whether it is employing a tool as basic as the Comments feature in a Google doc to annotate a passage, or taking advantage of sophisticated educational software like Achieve, the available technology is remarkable, to say the least.
My final peer review question for students is this: “Do you think the student writer enjoyed composing this essay? If not, what can the student do to make the essay topic their own?” I like to end by reminding everyone in the peer review group that—however many suggestions they receive from their classmates—ultimately, the writing they do belongs to them.