Spring 2011 UWC Showcase
Students' Peer Review of Writing:  A Lesson Study Project Documenting a Better Practice  
Katie Kalish (English, UW-Marshfield), Jen Heinert (English, UW-Washington), and Valerie Murrenus Pilmaier (English, UW-Sheboygan) 

These three faculty members know a lot about student writing and how students can help each other with their drafts, but they would never admit this fact so boldly. Supported with a UW Colleges Lesson Study Grant, they designed a research study to develop and measure an effective way of helping students revise their papers with their peers' help--a practice that is relevant and useful across the curriculum, so they provided the following materials for the VTLC's first UWC Showcase.

Peer review activities are often cited as a "best practice" for classes in which students submit papers. One of the most common methods is when students exchange papers and sit quietly as they fill out an instructor-generated worksheet with questions about each writer's paper. Reviewers then return the worksheet, often ineffectively filled out, and, if there's time, begin a second paper. The comments on these worksheets are often simple yes/no replies, "Good job" praise, or unclear suggestions for how to “fix” the paper. Peer review research shows that using worksheets and similar methods just don’t work. As one student aptly explained in our research, “I liked most not having to fill out a long drawn out sheet of paper that most students don't even take the time to read.” 

As composition instructors, former writing center tutors and directors, and researchers, we created a way to blend peer tutorial techniques with in-class peer review. Our peer tutorial method is grounded in writing center theory, which is built on the premise that undergraduate students are capable of working one on one in a productive, collaborative capacity. In The Allyn and Bacon Guide to Peer Tutoring, Paula Gillespie and Neal Lerner explain, “As a tutor, you don’t have to be an expert on the subject matter of the paper the writer is working on, and you don’t even have to be an expert in grammar and correctness—knowing that something isn’t right is probably enough” (24). With instruction, students can ask thoughtful questions of each other’s work and then take time for the writer to think about his or her paper. Essentially, our method emphasizes students working in pairs, the reviewer taking the role of engaged reader (rather than instructor or expert), the writer thinking critically about his or her work, and both students focusing on having a conversation about each of their papers. 

In our method, students benefit from an in-depth examination of their own work. Unlike traditional peer review where students fill out questionnaires about each other’s papers for the entire hour, in this tutorial method, they sit together, side-by-side in pairs, and discuss their writing--the process, the intention, the challenges, the triumphs, and, only occasionally, the grammar. Each pair looks at one paper at a time, from the first line to the last, and talks through the paper together while the writer takes notes. For example, the reviewer might read the first line out loud to the writer (as both are looking at the paper) and say “What a great opener! Good energy!” and the writer might then say, “Do you think I provided enough context to the reader before I get to my thesis?” and so on until they get to the end of the paper. If students get stuck or are at a loss for what to ask next, they can either refer to the list of general questions that we supply or ask the instructor for guidance. 

Bringing such peer-tutorial activities into writing assignments allows useful collaboration that prompts students to move past the cursory examination of punctuation and spelling to a more comprehensive revision of their work that responds more to the assigned task. Our research has shown that this tutorial method of peer review, which emphasizes conversation and shifts the pen from the reviewer to the writer, yields the following:
  • positive feedback from students, 
  • more thoughtful work, 
  • a clear focus on writing as a process, and 
  • the practice and development of rhetorical skills.

Click here to download their handout explaining how to use this method in your own class.

Resources for Further Study, Reflection, or Discussion
  • Email or talk with Katie, Jen, and/or Val.
  • Read their upcoming chapter “Reinventing Peer Review Using Writing Center Techniques: Teaching Students to Use Peer-Tutorial Methodology" (Catherine Kalish, Jennifer Heinert and Valerie Murrenus Pilmaier) in Small Group Collaborative Learning & Writing: A Practical Sourcebook, which will be published by McFarland Press in the fall of 2012.

Reflect, Respond, or Interact

What have been your experiences with students' peer review of writing?  Have you tried this "peer tutorial method" yet?

To respond about the traditional method of peer review or the peer tutorial method described above, feel free to send your thoughts to vtlc@uwc.edu or directly to the researchers (see top of the page), or respond to the content more directly and publicly with each other by going to this VoiceThread page.  (Need a VoiceThread tutorial?  Go here.)