As an adult, I seek out peer review and feedback daily. Sometimes it’s running a lesson plan idea by my teacher friends. Other times, it’s asking my husband to proofread this blog post you’re reading right now. I actively seek out feedback from my peers, and for that, I’m a better teacher and writer. I wouldn’t think twice about asking for feedback! In fact, I am so grateful for that opportunity when someone is willing to take time out of their day to give me their opinion, advice, or skills.
However, as soon as I was ready to bring peer review to practice in the classroom, it became a chore, a bore, and a sore (spot). Clearly, I was doing it all wrong. Here’s what I mean: first, students saw peer review as another chore in the long list of assignments to just one and done submit their essays. Considering it a chore, they didn’t give great feedback making it a bore to read, and obviously not meaningful. Finally, there were times it actually created a sore spot when students were far too critical or harsh on each other’s essays.
These issues were sometimes minor and sometimes pretty significant. Therefore, I made changes over the years, but never found the sweet spot for peer review success. Ironically, as someone who unwittingly relies on peer feedback, I even started thinking that peer review was, in fact, a chore, a bore, and a sore. That was until I took a certificate course through Harvard University.
I was intrigued by how quickly I changed my opinion on peer review through their assignments and how easily I was able to make connections between formal (school) and informal (my daily life) peer review and feedback. I decided to dive into the research on peer review and complete a contained action research project in my own classroom with my AP English students. The results are students who see peer review as an opportunity for more valuable feedback, and today, I’m sharing all of the strategies and tips to help you do the same!
Keep It Anonymous (At First)
Providing anonymity is a very important first step in the peer review process. Formal research suggests that reviewers are more likely to provide critical, constructive feedback and writers are more likely to improve their writing when the identity of the writer and reviewer is hidden (Lu & Bol, 2007). Lu and Bol’s commonly cited research study was conducted with undergraduate college students. Yet, their findings apply to high school students.
Anonymous peer review for middle and high school students gives them a chance to honestly and safely provide feedback and make corrections without worrying about who gave them the feedback and why. During my action research in peer review practices, I experimented with different methods. Ultimately, I realized that when students provide feedback to each other, they often focus on who is giving the feedback and why versus focusing on the feedback itself.
I usually ask students to complete two peer reviews, so they each can receive two. It doesn’t always work out perfectly, but with this method, everyone is guaranteed to get at least one. Then, once students have had an opportunity to receive anonymous peer feedback, I like to give them an opportunity to meet with a trusted peer to review their essays once more. This approach allows students a chance to receive their private feedback first. Then, they can meet with their trusted peer together. This gives them an opportunity to ask their trusted peer about the feedback and improvements they’ve already made. They also have an opportunity to conference with me during this time to ask my opinion on the feedback.
Make It Specific
I’ve learned a lot since starting this action research. One of the best areas of improvement has been the peer feedback assignment itself. I started out with a big list of 10+ questions for them to answer. Then, I asked them to score the essays using our rubric. This resulted in two very different but equally important problems:
- The number of questions completely overwhelmed students. It took them so long to get through the questions! Then, fatigue set in, and they ended up giving vague feedback.
- The other problem was that they were way too hard on each other. Scoring essays takes a lot of time and practice. In fact, it’s one of the most challenging parts of being an English teacher. Therefore, after trying it a few times, I realized writers were so focused on the scores that they totally missed the feedback. Not to mention, the scores were often pretty far off from what I would have scored them. Students definitely can benefit from practice scoring. In fact, I encourage it! However, the stakes are high when their peers are going to be getting a score back that could impact their confidence. Therefore, I always leave this off for now!
Instead, I keep it simple. I never give more than three questions. Also, I always create them so that students are 1) reading the essay and telling the writer what they’re getting from it, 2) providing constructive feedback based on a specific part of the writing task, and 3) providing encouragement. It seems simple, but it works!
Download my exact assignment here:
You have the plan. You have the assignment. Now, it’s time to practice. As teachers, we’ve had a lot of practice providing meaningful feedback and re-framing our words so that they are constructive and not demeaning. It doesn’t necessarily come naturally, though. Therefore, giving students a practice round can make a difference.
I always start with a sample essay. This might be an essay I’ve written or an essay from a released standardized test. College Board, for example, releases free response question essays every year. Then, I ask students to practice writing feedback using the assignment. This is a great step because we can compare their feedback with the way I left feedback on the assignment.
Once they’ve written their own feedback for the sample essay, you can share your feedback with students so they can compare their feedback quality to your standard. I start by modeling my thought process and my feedback as I complete a live demo. Using their peer review assignment as part of the model, I explain how I choose constructive and encouraging wording and how I provide meaningful feedback for them to consider.
Students can then compare their feedback to yours and reflect or revise. This activity will give them insight into their quality and help them adjust as is necessary when they complete the peer review activity.