This week at TNP we are discussing writing in the classroom. To kick off our series, I am sharing how I use peer review activities to improve my students' writing.
No matter how many times we tell our students to review their writing assignments before turning them in, procrastination always seems to win out. At best, they may do a quick glance through the document to make sure there aren’t any glaring errors. At worst, they don’t even use Word or Google Doc’s basic editing software to catch spelling or grammar errors. To combat this, I use structured, in-class peer review activities to improve writing. Peer review activities improve students’ writing in a couple different ways.
When it comes to writing assignments, students are willing to turn in just about anything to their teacher. However, if they know their classmate is going to be reading their work, they all of a sudden take the assignment a little more seriously. Using peer review activities in class makes the students more accountable for their work. It encourages them to put in a little extra effort (and maybe even editing!), to avoid the embarrassment that comes with turning in a last-minute, poorly written paper. As such, I make sure the class is all aware that they will be doing an anonymous peer-review activity the day their writing assignment is due. The anonymity protects the students academic confidentiality, while still encouraging them to bring an assignment to class that they can be proud of (or at the very least, an assignment that they aren’t embarrassed by).
You can keep students’ papers anonymous a couple different ways. If you have students turn in their assignments the night before through an online submission system, you can print anonymous versions of each assignment, removing names and providing a randomly assigned number to the paper. If you don’t have time to do that, you can ask students to turn in their papers with a separate title page that has their name, while leaving the rest of the assignment un-identified. When they turn in their assignments, you can assign each student a number, write it on the title page and the actual assignment, and then remove the title page from the assignment. This way you have a record of which paper is which, while de-identifying the part that will be reviewed by peers.
Developing Editing Skills
While most students have (at least some) experience writing papers, few have been trained to edit them. It is no wonder that many students struggle to edit their own work: they don’t know how! Incorporating peer review activities into class helps students learn critical editing skills that they have not had the opportunity to develop. This is one of the primary reasons I take the time to have students do peer reviews in the classroom rather than at home. This is also why I give students a peer review handout, to guide them as they edit their classmate’s paper.
Handouts for guided peer reviews can vary widely depending on the assignment. I encourage you to take a few minutes to think about a couple key things you want the students to take away from the peer review activity. Don’t go overboard- students are often new to the editing process, so start small and keep the level of your students in mind. Not all students are going to be able to readily identify poor organization or vague statements. For less experienced students, consider giving them more guidance in their review handout by giving them a check-list and direct reflection questions. More experienced students may be able to handle a more “open” format that emphasizes general reflection.
Learn by Example
Whether they review the best or worst paper in the class, peer review allows the student to learn from their classmate’s paper. If reading a good quality paper, it helps them see how a clear, well written paper should be organized. If reading a low quality paper, it shows them how grammatical errors, poor organization, or unclear statements make understanding a paper difficult.
To encourage this sort of evaluation and comparison, I have each student reflect on how the grammar, structure, and clarity of the paper was good (and if so why) or if it could be improved (and if so how). I break down these reflections into the following sections: grammar, spelling, and general APA formatting; organization and clarity; and finally the actual content (was it accurate and in line with the assignment’s requirements). After this, I ask them to reflect on how their feedback could be applied to their own writing. Reading their peer's paper (regardless of the quality) helps students better understand the importance of organization and flow- two critical writing elements that many struggle with. After taking on the role of "editor", students are better able to identify how they can improve their own writing.