Writing Class Peer Review: A Revelation of Student Authority
I am a newcomer to in-class peer review. When I taught high school 17 years ago, I was a
recently graduated English major–not an English Teaching major. I had little to no experience
teaching a lesson of any kind (maybe a time or two teaching a church lesson to fellow college
students), and I had never heard of peer review. Stepping into the role of first year writing
teacher now this semester with my newfound teaching prowess and knowledge of the power of
student collaboration, I approach peer review with a lot of optimism–and some trepidation. The
first time I conducted peer review, I created a full page list of instructions. I was going to screen
share and show my students that, to make this meaningful, they had to be truly inquisitive.
Despite my hopes for a productive experience, the result was dictated largely by a very real race
with the clock (which resulted in many students not even being able to share their papers), and a
general overload (on the students’ part) of information on the one-page breakdown of what they
were supposed to do. Mostly, it seemed that the students ignored guidelines and questions I had
provided, and I thought we had a mostly failed day of collaboration. To my surprise, however, a
lot of my students have since commented on how great peer review was. They share that their
papers improved and they noticed things they hadn’t noticed before showing it to one another.
So, even though I didn’t think the experience had gone very well, my students thought it had. I
decided to probe them further, asking them how confident they felt in their ability to give good
feedback, and found that they were, as a whole, overwhelmingly confident in their peer
reviewing abilities and that they felt experienced and capable in the role. My failed peer review
that turned out not to be a failure in the eyes of my students, as well as my inquiry into their
confidence level with peer review, has given me a desire to learn more about what is happening
on the level of the student who is doing the reviewing in peer review. What experiences are
students having as they’re giving feedback to their peers?
Certainly, giving feedback is one of the most difficult and ethereal things I do as a
teacher. I always hope that I have things to say that will help my students. I’m not sure I’d give
myself an A in this category. But the students in my class feel good about dishing it out, it seems,
and this gives me great hope that they are feeling some kind of power in my classroom in their
role as a reviewing student. My students’ confidence in their abilities makes me wonder what
feeling of authority is going on in their heads as they engage in peer review. They feel confident
and able to help. They feel comfortable giving feedback. They feel like they know what they’re
doing. These observations have led me to ask how we, as educators, can harness this wonderful
feeling of confidence and authority that students are experiencing during peer review and use it
to their advantage both during peer review and in other areas of our classrooms and pedagogy. In
the first place, can peer review be enhanced by guidance designed with this confidence and
authority in mind? And further, if students feel this confident in their abilities to critique each
other’s writing, what else might they feel confident doing? What can we learn from the
confidence and authority felt during peer review, and how can it help individual students,
perhaps, beyond the writing classroom? I will begin answering these questions by discussing
how authority found in peer review may be more beneficial in different ways than it has been
given credit for, and then relay its relevance to the field. I will discuss the benefits of the peer
review process and classroom democracy and suggest specific ways teachers can harness the
power found within this unique dynamic.
Peer Review Just Another Teaching Strategy?
Although most of the research I found about peer review was positive, I did find some
criticism. Donald Stewart castigates collaborative writing theory, declaring that collaborative
writing and learning have been too highly praised, and that its use is worthwhile with certain
students in certain contexts–not all students in all contexts. He argues that collaborative learning
has been too highly valued and that its use should be merely one of many in a load of resources
available to writing teachers (80). Stewart’s worries about praising peer review too highly can be
true in some ways. There are some drawbacks to peer review if it isn’t given proper guidance.
Diana George agrees somewhat with Stewart, but not in the same respect. While Stewart believes
that peer review is simply another tool in the belt of a teacher, George sees the practice as highly
valuable–if done right. She discusses the problems with what she calls the “dysfunctional” peer
review group who has lackluster or unhelpful comments and who half-heartedly engages. The
effect of the results of a disengaged group, she says, can mean more work for the teacher and an
environment where the teacher must, nervously, turn authority over to her students. Furthermore,
power transfer from teacher to disengaged student affects the teachers’ sense of authority (e.g.,
321-326). Charlotte Brammer and Mary Rees highlight the complexity of guiding effective peer
review and the mixed feelings that students have about peer review in both L1 and L2 classes.
They conducted a study about the value of peer review, asking a list of key questions, including
questions about frequency and perceived value (in instruction), and student self-confidence. In
their study, they found that feelings about the efficacy of peer review varied according to the
frequency it was used in class, as well as the confidence the student possessed in their ability to
give helpful and good feedback. The higher the frequency, the more positive the student
response; likewise, the higher the level of personal confidence, the more positive the student
While finding the right balance of how many peer review sessions to hold may need to be
up to the teacher, approaching peer review in a structured way may be the best recipe for success
to use the process and to give students a feeling of authority and confidence. I propose using two
different structured approaches to peer review that vary in application. One is a student-led,
student-created, structured approach that allows students to be creative and authoritative. The
other is a structured and more guided approach that can help teachers avoid unhelpful peer
review and assist students in having a positive experience, as well. I will discuss strategies for
both student-led and teacher-guided peer review, and argue that peer review, in either form,
should be a frequent visitor in writing classrooms–particularly for the purpose of increasing
students’ feelings of confidence and authority. So, even though I agree that we should not forget
about the multitude of resources we have as teachers to give our students effective ways of
communicating what they want to say, I wonder if the opposite of what Stewart says about praise
for collaboration is true. Perhaps peer review hasn’t been praised highly enough. And, by this, I
mean that maybe we haven’t explored enough this question of how students feel as they
participate in and help each other with their writing projects.
Students’ Feelings of Authority
The ideas of collaborative learning through peer review and student authority are
discussed at length in their own scholarly conversations, and I believe they can be connected
quite effectively in talking about the authority students feel while engaging in peer review. From
Kenneth Bruffee’s principles of collaborative learning (which emphasize the internalized
re-externalized conversation among students in a writing classroom and how collaborative
learning models how knowledge grows) to John Trimbur’s democratic learning to Anson’s
discussion of the indispensable issue and importance of trust among learning peers, both
collaboration and authority have been on the minds and in the conversations of scholars for a
long time (Kennedy and Moore 37). My discussion of the authority students feel while reviewing
each other’s work is relevant to the study of both of these areas. To peer review because the
power a student feels as reviewer of another student’s work can be used to benefit the process of
peer review itself, and to authority and classroom democracy because the temporary transfer of
authority that happens while students are engaged reviewing another student’s work can be
analyzed and used to benefit other areas of classroom democratic and non-democratic
engagement. Peer review, a specific collaborative learning activity with its own scholarship and
study, has a special place in writing classrooms and has been found to improve and enhance
student performance–though not always in expected ways. In my scholarly digging, I have found
that, while peer review in writing classrooms has been shown, sometimes, to strengthen the work
of the students whose writing is being reviewed, evidence supports the assertion that peer review
helps the reviewer of the paper as much as–and possibly more than–the one whose writing is
being reviewed (Lundstrom and Baker 31).
While Kenneth Bruffee’s “engaging students in conversations among themselves” or
teaching students to “think well as individuals” through “thinking collectively” is one of the
obvious goals of peer review, another goal that might bear some consideration is what peer
review is doing to the student who is engaged in it (642). Kristi Lundstrom and Wendy Baker say
that activities connected to peer review may help students “develop the ability to critically
examine even their own writing, which offers them self-feedback and greatly improves their
writing skills” (39). Their study’s findings also highlighted the work that still needs to be done in
conveying to students the importance of feedback and the “why” of peer review (Brammer and
Rees 9). John Trimbur’s discussion of the value of collaboration in the vein of vulnerability and
democratic learning, and separating the ideas of the social from collaborative gives this idea
some weight for inquiry. Trimbur defines social learning as helping students gain access to
knowledge, while collaboration is “mutual reciprocity.” This mutual reciprocity is, I think,
where authority transfer comes alive in our students. When students engage in collaborative
work, they must emerge as either leader or follower (or co-leader, co-follower) (699). When we
give over command to students in order that they may work together to implement instructions in
some way, we are giving them the hat. Peer review is the perfect example of this handover.
A New Hat
It appears that something is going on with the student who engages in reviewing a
paper–perhaps something that changes the student’s perception of herself and her grasp of the
expectations and even mastery of the assignment in question. Lundstrom and Baker remark on a
study done in 1987 by Michael Graner that “found that students who reviewed papers but did not
receive any feedback on their own work improved at the same rate as students participating in
traditional peer review activities” (32). This revelation strengthens the idea that peer review’s
usefulness goes beyond helping the student whose work is being reviewed. If reviewing students
are gaining more from the process of giving feedback than receiving it, could there be a change
of some kind happening within the student who gives feedback? A change in their own
evaluation of their writing and in the confidence they have in their ability to help another
student? Aren’t there hats they must put on, or positions they must inhabit to give other students
feedback that give them each a new standing in the classroom? One that gives temporary
authority? I propose that peer review in a writing classroom does create a temporary authority
transfer to the reviewing students and that this transfer gives them new roles previously
uninhabited–and which may not be able to be inhabited in any other way. Even students who
teach, preparing and presenting material to classmates in a role similar to a writing instructor, are
generally not engaged in feedback and assessment of specific writing tasks. The unique role of a
peer reviewer, whether oral or written, is an animal of its own–an exciting occupancy of
authority that gives growth and revelation to the reviewer, specifically, to improve her own,
personal writing product and have confidence to help another improve hers.
George Jacobs of the University of Hawaii underscores some of the advantages and
disadvantages of peer review and students’ roles by summarizing key scholars Davies and
Omberg, and David W. Johnson and Robert T. Johnson:
Perhaps the key advantage put forward in support of peer feedback is that it changes students’ role
in the class. With an exclusively teacherfronted approach to writing instruction, the students’ role
is limited to producing writing which will be read and evaluated solely by the teacher. In contrast,
peer feedback broadens learners’ involvement by giving them the additional roles of reader and
advisor to go with that of writer. Hopefully, this. addition of roles increases learners’ insight into
the writing process. A related benefit proposed for peer work is that it helps learners become more
autonomous (Davies and Omberg, 1986), thus preparing them to write without a teacher there to
correct their errors. Further, structuring face-to-face discussion into the feedback process provides
students the opportunity to engage in constructive controversy which may lead to insights and
greater task engagement (Johnson & Johnson, 1987).
Engaging with each other in an environment free from the stresses of strong
teacher oversight, in other words, creates greater interest, greater potential for helpful
disagreement, and–you guessed it–greater feelings of independence and authority.
Conversation and Revealing Authority
Krista Kennedy and Rebecca Moore Howard tell us that Kenneth Bruffee’s “three
principles of collaborative learning” have been canonized into the teaching of writing and then
condense nicely his three principles of collaborative learning: thought as internalized
conversation, writing as “internalized conversation re-externalized” and working collaboratively
through Richard Rorty’s ‘socially justifying belief’ (37). In Bruffee’s mind, the principles build
on each other: thought as internalized conversation is the basis of writing (internalized
conversation re-externalized), and thought, talk, and writing in community settings are key
components to his assertion that knowledge (at least in the collaborative English/writing
classroom) is based in interaction (639). Further, Bruffee’s belief that how students’ talk to each
other will be reflected in their writing and that their contributions to a classroom will be valuable
because they are, simply, conversations between human beings with differing experience–and
these are key components to the collaborative structure (641). His declaration that the “pool of
knowledge” is where the learning happens and that knowledge is a dynamic and organic pastime
finds a home in the field of effective peer review these days. He put it best in his own words:
“Collaborative learning models how knowledge is generated, [and] how it changes and grows”
(647). This discussion is extremely relevant to the discourse of authority in the act of reviewing a
piece of writing. How students talk to each other during peer review is the heart of the revelation
of authority in the process. Interaction: the back and forth of ideas and the sharing of experiences
that inform writing and improvement, creates the authoritative hat that students wear while
engaging in review.
Student-Led or Teacher-Guided Strategies
As students engage in peer review, the question of how to do it is certainly obvious and
important. It seems plain enough that peer review workshopping needs, at the very least, a set of
guidelines to begin, but how can these guidelines be honed to give the most to reviewer and
reviewee? The first approach I propose is a student-led, student-planned peer review activity.
The activity would commence with the division of students into groups of five. The teacher
would plan four peer review sessions for the semester and allow one of the four groups to
conduct the peer review activity. Each group would plan how to run the peer review, with the
rubric being the ultimate go-to and guide. The group would keep notes on the process going on
and reflect on how well the process went. These sessions would happen four times a year in a
Writing 150 class: once for each of the three major assignments (The Opinion Editorial, The
Conference Paper, and the Multimodal project), and once for another analysis assignment chosen
by the students as a whole class–a peer review of one of the rhetorical analysis papers, for
example. This student-led approach brings the responsibility of structure to the students, and,
aside from the authority found in the rubric, allows the students the freedom and power to
conduct the session as they see fit–and (hopefully) deem the most profitable.
The other model that gives a tighter structure but still allows room for a free student
engagement once the process is underway is Trent Hickman’s model. Dr.Hickman, professor of
American Literature at Brigham Young University, has created a model for writing assignments
that arranges an effective and straightforward experience for peer review workshopping. His
instructions to students follows this approach:
- Before each workshop begins, email a copy of your paper draft to your group
- Someone needs to quickly volunteer to go first.
- Apologize quickly. [10-15 seconds]
- At this point, the author of the paper reads the selected pages of the draft OUT
LOUD to the group members.
- Once the author finishes reading the selected pages out loud, then she/he must be
SILENT while the group members give their feedback.
- Once the group members finish giving their feedback, the author may ask
follow-up questions of them if time permits.
- Thank your group members for their feedback and then move to the next person.
In addition to the instructions, Hickman sends a video guiding the process and a graded
survey to gauge readiness, participation level, and peer involvement. Students lose some credit
for the workshop if they fail to complete the survey. A change I would suggest to Hickman’s
model is screen sharing during workshopping that takes place virtually. Platform options that
allow students to share their screens as they read aloud enable all students to look at the student’s
writing while simultaneously watching her read the paper in real time. This kind of screen
sharing seems extremely important, as engaging with body language and facial expressions has
long been established as an extremely crucial component of communication (Kay 305).
Trust and Collaboration
One interesting step in Hickman’s peer review workshopping is number three: apologize
quickly. He says,
I used to tell [students] not to apologize at all for their papers—they’re rough drafts, for crying out loud,
and everyone knows they’re not perfect yet!—but then I realized that something inside of people makes
them want to say terrible things about their own writing ability and their papers before they workshop them
(“I’m a terrible writer…I have no idea what I’m saying…I’ll be surprised if you understand me at all…”
etc.). It’s almost like a necessary step in the ritual, since even people who secretly know they have a pretty
darn good draft still apologize, even if it’s just to appear humble and to satisfy the social contract of the
workshop and its tacit expectations. So go ahead and apologize—but only take 10-15 seconds and then do
not apologize again during the workshop. All right? (1).
Aside from the description being humorous, tender, and true, a heightened trusting
environment emerges in Hickman’s allowance: a feeling of humility that gives efficacy in a
shared experience (Owens et al. 1517). A shared experience in trust is perhaps at the heart of this
guided practice. Mara Holt defends collaborative learning as an effective model for “replac[ing]
the hierarchy of power” and transforming it into a social, “poly-centralized model” (109). Either
of these models can form a baseline for communication and trust, no matter the level of
acquaintance before the onset of peer review. Chris Anson, Laura Brady, Marion Larson’s piece
about the practice of collaboration has an interesting take on the personal aspect and challenges
of sticking students together who don’t know each other and haven’t yet developed mutual trust.
Although all three authors are proponents of teaching writing with student collaboration, they
recognize that a lot of what Bruffee says about the value of students’ “bringing [themselves] to
the table,” as it were, might very well rest upon the level of trust among them. What are students
willing to share with other students–especially ones they don’t know very well? Rather than
provide a solution, Anson and friends leave the question open on the collaboration table for
discussion and debate. I feel that the real answer to these questions is that it doesn’t matter what
the students are willing to share. It matters that collaborative work will be the catalyst to bring
out that sharing at all–regardless of the variety (16-17).
Guided Collaboration Creates Confidence and Trust
I submit that the trust fostered in guided (student- or teacher-) collaboration creates an
authority transfer that can foster a beneficial classroom dynamic. A study by Mary G. Chaktsiris
of McMaster University and James Southworth of Wilfrid Laurier University that illustrates this
advantage outside of peer review for writing assignments. The 12-week study included 30
third-year history students in two courses engaging in peer-to-peer feedback on a research paper.
In the courses, the peer review took a scaffolded approach, integrating in-class workshops and
online feedback.The researchers found the benefits of the study extended beyond their initial
hopes, even when individual student writing did not improve:
Our study shows that students found the peer review process helpful in overcoming anxiety and developing
time management skills, which helped build a sense of community with peers. Since these factors can be
important to student success, we suggest that peer review is a useful pedagogical exercise to develop
skills beyond writing. These “soft skills,” such as organization skills and the ability to collaborate
effectively with peers, are central not only to students’ success at university, but also in the
Directed peer review, then, appears to aid in building trust through practicing effective
use of collaborative time and increasing writing confidence, not only in the writing classroom,
but in life.
Benefitting from Trust and Authority
Educational consultant Richard Stiggins asserts that “student-involved classroom
assessment, student-involved record-keeping, and student-involved communication [. . . ] permit
us to tap an unlimited wellspring of motivation that resides within each learner” and that
“together, these tools [. . .] turn students on to the power and joy of learning” (196). I believe
that students in communication with each other within peer review and in other areas of the
class, such as group projects that result in a teaching and assessment of other students, increases
student confidence and benefits the classroom community. Students who teach content through
collaboration increase their confidence in that content and feel connected to the group they work
with. Students who get a chance to participate in a student-led peer review activity in a writing
class can feel confidence and an authority as they help to run the class. Likewise, students who
engage in a structured peer review can also benefit from the guidance of effective strategies,
even as they run the actual experience together. Peer review can become a time of knowledge
and confidence when guided in a meaningful way, and the skills of organization, increased
confidence, and feelings of authority found in guided, collaborative activities can be beneficial
and lasting for students in and out of the classroom.
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