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.