Considering the Value of Peer Response

By Fiona Glade (English), Lisa Hammersley (Geology), and Patricia Clark-Ellis (Associate Dean of the College of Health and Human Services)

What is peer response?

Faculty at Sac State have been using peer response groups effectively in the classroom for some time, having found that peer response provides students with excellent preparation for writing in a variety of academic, workplace, and community settings. Peer response groups resemble our own scholarly work as researchers and writers, allowing participants opportunities to see work-in-process, to understand more closely the expectations of a given discipline, and to participate actively in the conversations that comprise our fields.

Rather than focusing simply on editing mechanics at the final stages of the writing process, response groups are most useful when they take place earlier in the process, when writers are creating drafts and organizing their ideas. Allowing writers some classroom time to discuss their ideas at this stage encourages learning through writing. WAC programs often refer to this process as "writing to learn": discussions about drafts-in-process encourage conversation about course content. Moreover, the discussions that take place in workshops foster collaboration—another staple of our own academic lives as well as a common requirement in most workplaces. Finally, peer response workshops widen the audience for the texts that our students produce.       

Why engage in peer response?

As you consider ways peer response workshops could help you reach your teaching goals, think about not only the purpose of using peer response, but also about the ways it might be suitable for your course and for a particular writing assignment by reflecting upon the following questions:  

For peer response to be successful, students need to have a clear understanding of what it is and why they are being asked to do it. If you can articulate why you are asking students to engage in peer response, you are ready for the next step: the mechanics of peer response. 

Preparing for a peer response exercise in your classroom  

In preparation for peer response, students should understand not only the goals of the assignment and of the workshop, but also the timetable for the writing assignment. It often helps if peer review is used as part of the process of writing a term paper or another challenging assignment where a review stage will be particularly useful. It's useful to tell students that they will be sharing their work at the drafting stage, so they realize that they will be expected to make changes after getting feedback from their peers. In order to ensure that the work is ready for a peer review and that students participate, it may help to assign points to these stages of the process. Another way to do this is to deduct points from the final assignment grade if students don't participate by either bringing a draft or responding to a peer's draft.

When using peer response, it's critical to create a worksheet or guide-sometimes referred to as a script-to help writers review their classmates' papers: requiring written responses to your script builds in accountability for students' comments about other students' work. A script also encourages responders to offer constructive advice rather than offering only criticism. The workshop script should focus on the writing assignment, including questions for responders to answer about specific criteria required of the assignment, such as organization, format, disciplinary terminology, citation style, etc. Providing a copy of the grading rubric for the paper can also be very useful for reviewers. The most effective script will likely include a series of questions for responders to consider while reading a classmate's draft. Here are a few examples to consider adapting for your own courses:   

Well-constructed guiding questions can help students write respectful and helpful reviews by encouraging them to make suggestions for fixing the problems they have identified.  

Organization of peer response exercises 

There are a number of effective ways to organize and facilitate peer response.  The first is during class time, when writers bring their drafts to class and form into groups-chosen by the teacher or the students-to discuss their work. For a set period of time, each member of the group focuses on reading the draft of one peer;  after all group members have read the same draft, they spend time discussing their responses as a group.  A second way to organize peer response is through at-home written responses, in which reviewers produce an individual written response to a peer's work. Papers can be exchanged in class on a given day, or you can assign a paper to each student after looking over the first drafts to ensure that each paper is at a sufficiently advanced stage for review. 

Just like any other teaching tool, peer response groups should be designed to fit in with a teacher's stated course goals.  For example, if one of the writing goals for a course is that students understand the format of written research articles, then a series of mini-workshops discussing drafts of each section of a paper-such as hypothesis, methods, or findings-would work well.  While these group conversations will be about writing, it is highly likely that a simultaneous conversation about course content will emerge. Just as faculty participate in the social construction of knowledge in their own fields, so, too, can our students.