Written by Rebecca Wilbanks
Peer review is a workhorse of the writing classroom, for good reason. Students receive feedback from each other without the need for the instructor to comment on every submission. In commenting on each other’s work, they develop critical judgment that they can bring to bear on their own writing. Working peer review into the schedule requires students to complete a draft ahead of the final deadline and sets the expectation that they will revise. Students benefit from seeing how others executed similar writing tasks. Finally, the skills that students practice during peer review—soliciting, providing, receiving, and responding to feedback—are essential to success in both scholarly and professional contexts.
While students often report that they found peer review to be valuable, students and faculty sometimes worry that peer feedback may be inaccurate or unhelpful. These concerns are valid: for peer review to be successful, students must receive clear instructions about what aspects of the text to focus on and training in how to formulate responses to peer drafts. The class must develop a shared sense of standards and a language to articulate them. The good news is that when peer review is supported in these ways, substantial evidence supports peer review’s benefits. With appropriate preparation, Melzer and Bean report that three or more students collectively produce feedback analogous to that of an instructor. Some classes even use a rigorous peer review system to generate grades for assignments.
It’s best to put the guidelines for your peer review in writing. These guidelines could take the form of a set of questions for students to respond to, a rubric to fill out (usually the same rubric that will be used to grade the assignment), or instructions for writing a response letter to the writer. Students will also benefit from seeing examples of helpful (and less helpful) feedback comments. You can use these sample comments to push students to provide greater specificity in their feedback (Less helpful: “Nice work. You did a really good job on this assignment.” More helpful: “I really like how you responded to the claims of Author X.”)
What to Ask of Student Reviewers
As you design the peer review, consider how you will balance these different options:
- Asking students to identify elements in the text. This approach allows students to check that expected elements of the text are present and legible to the audience. E.g.: Highlight the sentence(s) where the author states their thesis; or, identify the part of the text where the author explains the significance of their findings. In doing so, students practice recognizing the expected components of the genre they are working in, the different forms these components may take, and they help each other spot when a component is missing or underdeveloped.
- Asking students to record their reactions as a reader. This option harnesses the power of peer review to provide a real audience. Here are some examples of reader-response comments: “Oh, now I see why you brought up [x]; it seems like your point is [y]”; “I’m having trouble with this sentence; I had to go back and read it a couple times”; “I understand this paragraph to be saying [x]…”; “This is a really neat point; I hadn’t thought of making that connection before.” This approach is based on the idea that understanding how one’s writing is coming across to readers and making changes accordingly is an essential part of the revision process.
- Asking students to make judgments and/ or give advice. Students may evaluate the work with a rubric or be asked to summarize what is working well and what the student should prioritize for revision. This approach requires more training and practice with models to ensure that students and faculty have a shared understanding of how to apply the assessment criteria, and will be more successful as students gain more exposure to the genre they are working in. In these peer review guidelines from an upper-level writing course, you can see how I incorporated identification, reader-response, and evaluation.
How to Structure a Peer Review Session
- A workshop with the entire class or section. In this case, everyone reads and comments on the same draft(s), often ahead of time. This format allows the instructor to guide the conversation and may be particularly helpful at the beginning of the semester. You may use the workshop format to review a sample assignment from a previous semester as practice before students review each other’s work.
- In small groups, in class. Students exchange and read each other’s work. Most often, students are asked to first respond in writing and then debrief in conversation, allowing for dialogue about the assignment and an opportunity to build classroom community. (Some research suggests that a combination of oral and written feedback is most valuable to students.) Make sure that the pieces students must read are not too long, as reading speeds vary. Keep in mind that you can do a targeted review that focuses on just a piece of the text (such as titles, introductions, or figures) instead of reviewing the whole assignment at once.
- As an alternative to having each student read and comment on each draft individually, Melzer and Bean suggest having groups exchange papers with other groups, and collaboratively write responses to each paper.
- Asynchronous and online. By using the peer review function on Canvas, or online platforms such as Peerceptiv, CPR, or Eli review, instructors can assign peer review as a homework assignment and avoid taking up class time. Applications designed expressly for peer review include features that encourage high quality review; for example, CPR requires students to pass a “calibration test” (in which they give feedback on models that have already been graded by the instructor), while Peerceptiv allows students to rate the quality of peer reviews during the revision process in an anonymous system that awards points for helpful feedback.
How to Get the Most out of Peer Review
Here are a few other suggestions to make peer review as effective as possible:
- Give students feedback on their feedback. If students are working in class, you can circulate through the different groups, reinforce insightful comments, and ask follow-up questions to get them to add depth or consider new aspects. You can also spot-check peer reviews and highlight examples of good feedback or ways to improve comments in class. Finally, you might ask students what feedback was most helpful during the revision process and recognize reviewers who do especially good work.
- Be aware that some students may put their energy into editing the paper, focusing on grammar and sentence structure rather than higher-level issues. This is especially likely when English is not the first language of the author being reviewed. Make sure to emphasize that the goal of peer review is to focus on higher-level concerns, and recurring issues of expression that affect readability—not to line-edit. The Sweetland Center for Writing at the University of Michigan has guidelines and evaluation criteria for peer reviews tailored for situations involving multilingual students.
- To encourage students to make use of the feedback, consider giving students time in class after the peer review to start working on their revisions or make notes about how they will begin.
Cited and Recommended Sources
- Corbett, Steven J., et al., editors. Peer Pressure, Peer Power: Theory and Practice in Peer Review and Response for the Writing Classroom. First edition, Fountainhead Press, 2014.
- Corbett, Steven J., and Michelle LaFrance, editors. Student Peer Review and Response: A Critical Sourcebook. Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2018.
- Double, Kit S., et al. “The Impact of Peer Assessment on Academic Performance: A Meta-Analysis of Control Group Studies.” Educational Psychology Review, vol. 32, no. 2, June 2020, pp. 481–509. Springer Link, https://doi.org/10.1007/s10648-019-09510-3.
- Huisman, Bart, et al. “Peer Feedback on Academic Writing: Undergraduate Students’ Peer Feedback Role, Peer Feedback Perceptions and Essay Performance.” Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, vol. 43, no. 6, Aug. 2018, pp. 955–68. Taylor and Francis+NEJM, https://doi.org/10.1080/02602938.2018.1424318.
- Lundstrom, Kristi, and Wendy Baker. “To Give Is Better than to Receive: The Benefits of Peer Review to the Reviewer’s Own Writing.” Journal of Second Language Writing, vol. 18, no. 1, Mar. 2009, pp. 30–43. ScienceDirect, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jslw.2008.06.002.
- Melzer, Dan, and John C. Bean. Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. 3rd ed., Jossey-Bass, 2021, https://www.amazon.com/Engaging-Ideas-Professors-Integrating-Classroom/dp/1119705401.
- Price, Edward, et al. “Validity of Peer Grading Using Calibrated Peer Review in a Guided-Inquiry, Conceptual Physics Course.” Physical Review Physics Education Research, vol. 12, no. 2, Dec. 2016, p. 020145. APS, https://doi.org/10.1103/PhysRevPhysEducRes.12.020145.
- Rahimi, Mohammad. “Is Training Student Reviewers Worth Its While? A Study of How Training Influences the Quality of Students’ Feedback and Writing.” Language Teaching Research, vol. 17, no. 1, Jan. 2013, pp. 67–89. SAGE Journals, https://doi.org/10.1177/1362168812459151.
- Using Peer Review to Improve Student Writing. University of Michigan Sweetland Center for Writing. Accessed 15 Jan. 2023.
- van den Berg, Ineke, et al. “Designing Student Peer Assessment in Higher Education: Analysis of Written and Oral Peer Feedback.” Teaching in Higher Education, vol. 11, no. 2, Apr. 2006, pp. 135–47. srhe.tandfonline.com (Atypon), https://doi.org/10.1080/13562510500527685.