Help Your Students Help Themselves: Get Them to Write Better Without Increasing Your Workload

Updated: May 22, 2019

Jennifer Brown

Clemson University



The ability to communicate written results is essential in all careers, but how can we actively work to improve this vital skill without overwhelming ourselves with the workload of reviewing each student's written work? As it is challenging to provide detailed, quality feedback to every student on individual assignments, why not train students to give each other meaningful feedback?


I have found student peer review is a hidden gem that also improves students' self-awareness of their own writing abilities. I remember our own days in the classroom where we would groan whenever the professor announced a mandatory peer-review of a summative assignment (e.g., a final presentation or final draft of a research paper). There is often a perception of inadequacy and undervaluation of peer review feedback; however, used appropriately, peer review offers as much opportunity for the student who completes the review as the student who receives the comments. With that in mind, I have highlighted a few best practices from literature and personal experience for implementing useful peer reviews.


Give your students tools before asking them to build a masterpiece.

Students are rarely taught how to provide meaningful feedback on writing. In a world of spellcheck and grammar check, the most valuable feedback comes from suggestions for authors to improve, rephrase, or elaborate. Learning how to give productive feedback takes time, training, and practice. When a peer review is unstructured, students may not know where to start or what to look for, which can prevent them from engaging meaningfully in the process. Thus, a set of guiding questions or a rubric can be given to help fast-track training for conducting a peer review (Bowen & Watson, 2017).


Following are guiding questions I give my Mechanical Engineering students when having them review their peers’ “introduction” section of lab reports:


1. Describe what was done.

2. Why was it done? What was the researchers’ motivation or what were they trying to find out?

3. After reading the complete report, do you (as the reader) feel you were given enough theory/background information to understand the methods and results? If not, what is a topic that you might consider explaining in the introduction?

More general guiding questions I might provide:

1. What was one strength of this report or something that was explained particularly well?

2. What was a topic that might need more clarification?

3. If you could suggest one change or give one piece of advice to the author, what would it be?


Structuring the review in this way not only helps the authors in identifying where they could improve but also bolsters their confidence in the areas in which they perform well.


Identify Strengths and Weaknesses

Being able to identify strengths and weaknesses in their peers' work helps students engage in metacognition to think critically about their own writing. As a result, giving feedback could be considered more important than receiving their peers' feedback. Clearly and concisely explain the motivation behind assigning a peer review and its associated expectations. This is where we, as instructors, can achieve the emotional and intellectual buy-in from students. Be transparent regarding how you value peer feedback.



Studies have shown that peer review (as with many other types of feedback and assignments) tends to be more successful and well-received when there are clear expectations for learning objectives and outcomes (Bowen & Watson, 2017; Mulliner & Tucker, 2017)[RV1] . Peer review of an assignment ought to have a purpose and criteria for success that are clearly communicated in advance to students. Simply put, instructors need to explain the rationale behind the positive benefits of both receiving – and giving – peer feedback. Take this opportunity to talk up the importance of the peer-review approach.


Benefits for Students and Instructors

For students, peer review provides a safe avenue to self-evaluate their own writing abilities and thinking processes by benchmarking self-performance against those of their peers. This helps promote self-awareness and may inspire some students to step up their games, so to speak. Peer review is a useful tool to hold students accountable to not only the professor, but each other, which motivates them to engage more fully with the course material.

One lesser-mentioned benefit of practicing peer reviews in the classroom is that students learn how to professionally communicate constructive criticism and feedback with tact, which translates well into any career path. For instructors, reviewing the results of the peer feedback process can be critical in early identification of gaps in understanding of the material. If the instructor can identify overarching trends or specific misconceptions, these can be addressed in a targeted discussion with students early in the semester rather than leaving them to a harried, last-minute recitation session before the final exam.


Don’t Over Do It

Peer review has been found to produce high-quality feedback (as defined by the students that received it) that helps students improve on future drafts/assignments (Usher & Barak, 2018). I recommend at least two peers review the work to help provide better, more well-rounded feedback and to increase the chances that the most critical areas of improvement are appropriately identified for the author.


As with all good things, we must be wary of the law of diminishing returns.

Although arguably a valuable tool for instructors, peer review should not become a chore for students. If too many peer reviews are assigned, students may begin to burn out and disengage from the process. Therefore, I recommend implementing peer review judiciously on one or two critical assignments throughout the semester. An added benefit of using peer review on an assignment early in the semester is that it allows students adequate time to process the feedback to help improve subsequent assignments within the same class context.


Conclusion

Alas, if you are an instructor who believes strongly in providing feedback on individual student assignments, do not despair: your comments (perhaps as a rough summary or highlight of the student reviewers' comments) could still serve as a valuable feedback mechanism for students within the peer review process. As long as your purpose and expectations are communicated to students, peer reviews can be attractive tools for reducing the burden of feedback on faculty while also helping students learn how to help themselves in a variety of academic settings.


Discussion Questions

1. Identify a past written assignment or an assignment you may give in the future. What are some guiding peer review questions you might pose to your students for this assignment?

2. What other exercises could you do with students to teach them to give each other more meaningful feedback? How can class discussions be used to model professional communication?

3. How might you incentivize students to engage in peer review on assignments beyond a grade they will be assigned on the review they provide to their peer?


References

Bowen, J.A., & Watson, C.E. (2017). Teaching Naked Techniques: A Practical Guide to Designing Better Classes. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.


Mulliner, E., & Tucker, M. (2017). Feedback on feedback practice: perceptions of students and academics. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 42(2), 266–288.


Usher, M., & Barak, M. (2018). Peer assessment in a project-based engineering course: comparing between on-campus and online learning environments. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 43(5), 745–759.

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