Peer Groups in the Technology-Enabled Writing Classroom

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I suspect we all use peer review in some form or other. If we can help students become effective peer reviewers, then we give them a skill that helps them improve their writing without a teacherly intervention. Peer review makes writing public, so students see what others are doing and learn indirectly. We also help students become valuable workplace writers, because they know how to interact with others to improve writing within an organization.

My typical pattern in my introcomp class is to have students arrive to class with a completed draft, ready for peer review. We work from stated criteria on a given assignment, so students get in the habit of asking whether a document fulfills requirements and meets the purposes of the assignment. Comments, of course, range widely and do not stick strictly to the criteria on the rubric, but that is OK. We will often work in pairs.

I have a morning class this term, and I generally set a deadline for 11:30 pm that evening to turn in revisions. What I like about the system—and what students like, too—is that peer review makes a difference, immediately. Students might get some really helpful feedback and want to act upon it. Students might decide after seeing a couple of papers from others that they need to make some major changes. Or they might realize they fulfilled part of the assignment, but forgot to attend to some criterion. Or they might realize they have pretty good work in hand and just need do some final editing before submitting. Because the assignment is due the same day, students get immediate help, and the peer comments are fresh when they revise later that day. I get better work, and I get more work out of the students.

There are different ways to do peer review, and using available technology opens up more opportunity to play with the structure in a way that benefits students most. In my class, everyone brings a laptop (and we have a few Surface tablets for those without), and sometimes I have students pull up their texts in Word, turn on Track Changes, and then we play musical chairs. Students work at the author’s laptop, inserting comments and suggesting changes. They learn to use some very useful editing tools, and each student can quickly review two or three papers, so everyone gets feedback from more than one reader. Students like this approach because they feel freer in this setting, where they are not face-to-face with the author, to offer criticism, to suggest meaningful revisions, and to ask real questions about the text and its effectiveness.

But I also like to mix up my approach to peer review. My students sit at tables where they have a large shared screen. Anyone can connect by cable or wirelessly, and students can put their work up in front of other students. So sometimes we will put up a paper, especially an early draft, in front of the whole team (4-6 students per team). They can talk as a group about the writer’s approach, the strengths and weaknesses, and perhaps review two papers in class with the group agreeing to offer individual peer reviews to others outside of class. I let the teams manage the logistics.

My team tables are permanent through the course term, so students really get to know one another and establish good working patterns. But sometimes we work across teams. I’ll have everyone post their work to Sakai, our class management system, in the Forum (or Discussion) area, as an attachment. Students can then download the attachment, comment on the text either in the text itself or in the dialog box in Sakai, and review anyone’s text. I ask everyone to give at least two reviews and get at least two. Some do more. Many, I suspect, read quite a few of their classmates’ texts, learning to see what is strong or weak, what is novel or predictable, in the work of others. A collateral benefit of this approach is that students learn to be careful when downloading, renaming, and saving files so they can work on them. They use those handy Word tools to track changes and comments, and then upload their annotated files to the Forum. Students get to see what other reviewers do, and we can have a follow-up discussion about whose review comments were most helpful and why. A very natural modeling process for peer reviews leads to stronger future reviews.

About the Author
Dr. Stephen A. Bernhardt is recently retired from the University of Delaware, where he held the Andrew B. Kirkpatrick, Jr. Chair in Writing, from which position he promoted strong writing and communication skills across the university. He is the author of Writer's Help, a Web-based reference handbook from Bedford/St. Martin’s, now in Version 2.0. He teaches courses in scientific and technical communication, first year composition, computers and writing, and grammar and style. He taught previously at New Mexico State University and Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. You can learn more about Steve at his Web site.