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Peer Review in FYC and Corequisite Courses

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Do you remember your first experience with peer review—in high school, college, graduate school, or somewhere else? How do you construct peer review sessions in your classes? How has peer review evolved in your pedagogy? If you’ve recently shifted to a corequisite plus FYC model, how does peer review fit within that model?

My first encounter with peer review occurred in an advanced expository writing course my junior year in college; I don’t recall much about the actual in-class sessions, other than the fact that we were working with hard copies (this was the late 1980s) read aloud to a small group. Mostly I remember anxiety: I dreaded the vulnerability I faced while listening to group members critique my writing and argue about whether or not I had overused semicolons. (I actually remember writing a sentence in an observation paper about a child with “tousled” hair. I loved the word and knew exactly why I wanted to use it—having encountered it in my own reading—but I had no clue how to pronounce it. The fear of making a basic pronunciation mistake sent my already entrenched anxiety skyrocketing).

A few years later, as a graduate student with very little training in composition pedagogy, I was teaching a sheltered section of first-year composition for international students, and I assigned peer reviews (as I was told to do) regularly. But the students, lacking confidence in their own skills in English and receiving no clear guidance from me, did not find the exercise helpful. I might have abandoned peer review altogether in my second year of teaching, but shortly before the term started, I was asked to join a small group exploring writing pedagogy, led by Dr. Nancy Thompson and Dr. Rhonda Grego. We read Marie Wilson Nelson’s At the Point of Need, kept teaching journals, and conducted personal research into our teaching. Critically, we used Elbow and Belanoff’s A Community of Writers as our class text, and the small companion booklet that came with it, Sharing and Responding, as a guide for peer review. With a tangible set of instructions for peer review, students began to respond much more positively—and I found sufficient reason to try peer review in my classes again (and fell in love with teaching multilingual and so-called “basic” writers at the same time).

Although I continually adjust and refine the way I conduct peer review, I generally come back to the principles and techniques in Sharing and Responding every semester, particularly in helping students understand the value of descriptive and “sayback” responding. This sort of non-judgmental listening and describing does much to alleviate the anxiety and panic that some students may feel. (I was reminded of this anxiety at the recent Georgia Association for Developmental Education conference, where I attended a “Writing Marathon” session requiring participants to compose and then read writing aloud to colleagues we did not even know.  I was asked to read first in my group, and I know my blood pressure was climbing when three other sets of eyes were trained on me and my yellow notebook. But the only response group members were allowed to give after each reading was this: “Thank you for sharing.” We did three iterations, and it was much easier the third time).

When it’s time for more directed feedback in class, we do preliminary work first: we discuss the benefits of peer review beyond improving the draft at hand, and we practice offering feedback on drafts that class members did not write. I generally have students do peer review in the first-year composition class, not during the corequisite, although we may use corequisite class time to discuss ways of using and responding to peer feedback.

This semester, our first peer review was conducted in a virtual space, and after some training and practice exercises, students responded to the drafts of others in their small group using the comments features on Google Docs. I asked students to focus on content and organization-- saying back what they heard, responding to content, clarifying points of confusion, and asking questions. Since these drafts were still relatively early, I asked them not to focus on grammar or punctuation.

Seventeen students participated in the first peer review, and they made a total of 155 comments, most of which focused on personal connections to content, praise for strong wording or support, and suggestions for expansion (requesting definitions or more information). Each draft (which was 2-3 pages in length) received an average of 9 peer comments (in contrast, the papers received on average 13 targeted comments from me).  

I saw much to be pleased about as I reviewed the comments: for the most part, students took the exercise seriously and made perceptive comments that relied heavily on modality and suggestion (might, could, would, can, consider, etc.), as well as questions. 

But neither the numbers nor a linguistic analysis provides an adequate measure of the success of the review, although both suggest students met the goal of engaging in substantive talk—and metatalk—about writing. Now I want to understand how students value the peer review process and what they will do with the comments they were given; in the past, some students have told me that the only comments worth considering are the ones from me, since I am doing the grading. This week, students will be reflecting on the peer review exercise and their next steps (in a journal exercise). I am eager to see their responses.

How do you set up peer review for students in FYC/corequisite courses? How do you assess the effectiveness of those sessions? I would love to hear your strategies.

About the Author
Miriam Moore is Assistant Professor of English at the University of North Georgia. She teaches undergraduate linguistics and grammar courses, developmental English courses (integrated reading and writing), ESL composition and pedagogy, and the first-year composition sequence. She is the co-author with Susan Anker of Real Essays, Real Writing, Real Reading and Writing, and Writing Essentials Online. She has over 20 years experience in community college teaching as well. Her interests include applied linguistics, writing about writing approaches to composition, professionalism for two-year college English faculty, and threshold concepts for composition, reading, and grammar.