Skip navigation
All Places > The English Community > LitBits > Blog > 2017 > December
2017

When I introduced the first peer review assignment of the semester to my professional writing students, there were clear groans and noises of frustration and reluctance. I pressed them for explanation. “What’s so bad about peer review?”

 

“It’s not helpful.”

 

“It feels like a waste of time.”

 

“I don’t know what to say when I peer review.”

 

In response to these frustrations, I suggested that perhaps peer reviewing in a different way might make the process more helpful to students in their revision. First, I reiterated our purposes for peer reviewing: students get time and space away from the pieces they’ve been working on; they receive feedback from multiple readers, rather than me alone; and they develop connections with other writers in the class, which can extend long after the course ends. Then, I reminded my students that they have authority in their writing and they can choose what changes to make based upon the feedback they receive. Finally, I introduced them to a method of response that encourages this authority over their work, a modified version of Liz Lerman’s “critical response process.”

 

Instead of commenting on whatever strikes them, reviewers respond to specific questions asked by the writer. The writer, then, is in control of the feedback they want to receive on their work. As a result, the writer shapes their peer review process so it supports their writing goals.

 

To facilitate this peer review, I ask students to prepare a list of specific, yet open-ended questions about their work, such as: How might I restructure my essay so my ideas are more clear? How does the document design affect the argument I’m making? Which statements are confusing to you, or need more evidence? This requirement of developing thoughtful questions helps students critically reflect on their own work prior to submitting it to their peers. Since students know their own work best, they usually have a sense of where they’d like to begin with feedback.

 

With the list of questions in hand, students respond to the work of their peers. When responding, I ask my students to be as specific and clear as possible. I encourage them to cite assignment guidelines, our course readings, or other sources. These detailed responses support not only the student who is being reviewed but also the reviewer since they can later turn their critical eyes and reflections to their own work.

 

Once reviewers have answered their peers’ questions, they then pose open-ended questions of their own, such as: Why did you choose to structure your essay this way? How might a different color scheme affect the design of the document? What response do you hope to receive from your audience? The purpose of these questions is to help the writer reflect on elements of their writing or documents they might not have considered, and as writers respond to the new questions they gain a stronger sense of elements they need to revise.

 

Following their first attempts at peer review using this process, I asked my students what was most useful. They unanimously agreed that being in control of the feedback they received made the peer reviews helpful. They discovered that their reviews helped them think about their own writing more carefully. They also asked if we could continue peer reviews this way for the rest of the semester, and we have, finding similar success each time.

 

This peer review process can extend to other writing classrooms, from professional writing to composition to creative writing. When students are control of the feedback they receive, they are more receptive to concerns from peers and confident in their ability to revise and strengthen their work.

 

 

Today's featured guest blogger is Colleen Kolba, Digital Teaching Fellow at University of South Florida 

 

I expected the worst during finals week my first year as a teacher: a huge stack of papers to grade, frustration over revision advice not taken, late nights to meet grade submission deadlines. While I certainly had a lot to grade, what I really struggled with was unexpected: boredom at the conformity of my students’ work. Their writing was polished and it was evident that their skills had improved over the semester. But the writing lacked energy, originality, and their own voices. I found myself wondering what they had really learned.

 

In preparation for the next semester, I re-examined how the course learning goals might still be met while allowing students to present their learning in a more individual and authentic way. If students could tell me how they would best be able to present their learning, then maybe they would engage with the final project with more investment. And when students are invested, they spend more time, produce higher quality work, and engage in the work more deeply.

 

Enter, the “pitch your own final” final exam. A final exam designed to give students agency over their own learning. What I’ve detailed below is how I present Pitch Your Own Final in my Introduction to Literature course (a writing-intensive general education class offered at my university), although different iterations of this same final can be applied to courses throughout the English discipline. How it works: 

 

A month before the end of the semester, I introduce the final exam. The guidelines are as frustratingly open-ended as they come: “Engage with at least one course concept in a new way to demonstrate what you’ve learned in this class.”

 

It’s important to note that I’ve scaffolded this kind of project into my course. Throughout the semester, my students have been given a little more agency over each assignment that they complete, in order to prepare for an almost instruction-less final.

 

The class is usually in a mild uproar at this final project. They ask question after question to try and get me to tell them what I want. I ask them to tell me what I want. This makes them furious. They beg for examples. I learned early with this kind of project to not give them examples (a practice I otherwise offer in my class) because what many produce will be a near copy of that example. I ask them to trust me, as they’ve done all semester, that they’ll get much more out of the project if they’re in control.

 

Students then develop pitches for their final projects. This is a critical step. It allows me the opportunity to give students feedback about their initial direction. I can jump in early to make sure students are either doing enough work for a final project or not too much work (I’ve had students pitch me ideas that would turn into a book if executed as they describe). What I usually receive is a mix of analytical and creative work, synthesized together to demonstrate the student’s evolved understanding of what literature is.

 

On the last day of the semester, students present a portion of their work to the class, and the results are diverse and astounding. I’ve had students examine literary translation through dance choreography, create video games, and one even live-coded music. They’re invested in the work because they’re allowed to take what they’ve learned and connect it to a mode that they already know (either in the form of their major, hobbies, or a medium they’re familiar with). Many, as they present, tell the class that they discovered that they knew much more about literature than they thought and that it relates to their own interests in relevant and unexpected ways. 

 

I step out of the classroom that day with arms full of large, weird textual/visual/analytical projects and an inbox full of links that will lead me to a new and surprising project and perspective. I’m looking forward to grading, at this point, because with each new project, I get insight into a completely new, non-conforming perspective.

 

Quick end note: As you can imagine, I’ve implemented this type of final in courses in which I’ve had the freedom and luxury to design the class myself. While I’ve used this final to meet departmental and university-level learning outcome requirements, I acknowledge that assigning a final exam like this is a luxury afforded to those with complete creative teaching control.