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Maximizing Peer Review Effectiveness through Establishing Community
Sheryll Wood
Department of English

Most educators agree that students need to be able to write, and that to be able to do so they have to practice writing more, especially skills such as revision.  As a career English educator, and specifically as a composition teacher, I’ve read many articles and heard many presentations about the importance of teaching students the skills need for revision, and perhaps even more importantly, convincing them that revision is a necessary step in successful writing.  English teachers are not the only educators with this concern.  In the past several years at university writing across the curriculum meetings, a common concern expressed by educators from a wide variety of academic areas has been that students need to be revising their writing more effectively in their major content classes.

Barriers to Effective Writing in University Classes

Since nearly everyone appears to recognize the need for more writing and more effective revision, why doesn’t it happen?  What are the barriers that prevent more writing and effective revision in university courses? As a result of my experience and reading, and my questioning other instructors, the following six barriers are often mentioned:

  • Lack of student ability to write
  • Lack of student confidence in writing
  • Lack of a realistic audience for the writing
  • Lack of student motivation
  • Lack of time for individual student/instructor interaction about the writing
  • Lack of instructor grading time

In focusing on this list as the barriers to the desired outcome, I remembered one of the great barriers ever established in the world.  While the Great Wall of China had some limited success in its purpose of keeping the border safe, it became much more valuable as a means of transporting people and goods more easily through the mountainous terrain.  In much the same way, the following ideas suggest ways to examine the barriers that prevent our students from writing and finding a way to turn those barriers into a useful “pathway” to better writing.

Considering Practice and Theory

Part of my teaching career was spent in the community college system, in a career oriented structure; as a result, one of the first things I often do is translate how a classroom activity will relate to what a student will have to do in a career after college.  When I’m teaching Freshman Composition, I consider first what the students will need to know about writing to be successful first in their academic pursuits, and then in their professional career.


Based on this approach, as a writing teacher I think about writing tasks that individuals face in the “real world,” and how the writers approach those tasks. An inexperienced employee faced with an unfamiliar writing task might research to find models of the type of writing that needs to be done.  Therefore, I encourage my students to read extensively, and to locate and study models about the type of writing to be completed.  Studying a model example is an excellent way to improve writing skills, but that’s only half the battle.  The other half comes from the revision process, getting input from others about the drafts of our writing.   In a workplace, a new employee often would not go to the “boss” for help on an early draft, since that might indicate the employee doesn’t know how to do the job, and the “boss” probably doesn’t have time to deal with it.

The reality that employees may be apprehensive or unable to receive help from a supervisor leaves coworkers as the individuals who could help.  I’ve been in working environments where I felt very comfortable asking coworkers for help in learning how to complete the writing required by the job, and I’ve been in situations where I did not.  The situations in which I felt comfortable were those in which I had developed some type of relationship with the fellow employees, where I trusted that the fellow employees would try to help me and that I would try to help them if asked, and where I didn’t feel in competition with the other employees.


Once I had contemplated the actual practices I had experienced in career situations, I also applied the academic theory and research side of teaching composition. Through years of teaching writing, going to conferences, reading studies, participating in university writing activities, I’ve developed a set of personal theories about teaching students to improve their writing:

  • Writers need a real audience besides the teacher.
  • Writers need to write extensively to improve their writing.
  • Writers need to read other writing to improve their own writing.
  • Writers need feedback on their writing as part of revision.
  • Writers need to develop a process of writing that includes a willingness to seek and accept feedback and use the feedback to improve their writing.
  • Teachers don't have time to read and respond to hundreds of pages of writing for each student.

When I compare this list to my “barriers” list, it seems that everything I believe must happen to promote successful revision is prevented by the barriers I listed.  From the onset of my teaching writing, I’ve been taught to use peer review to solve these problems, but over the years have had many negative experiences with peer groups, a situation that many of my colleagues have also encountered.

Not only have I had negative experiences with my students working together, I still remember my own negative reactions during my school years toward anything remotely labeled as “group work.”  I hated working in groups in high school; I hated it more in college.  I felt like I ended up doing the work because I cared more about my grade or I was better prepared than the other students in the group.  When I left college, however, I found out that much of life in the workplace was about working in groups (unfortunately with many of the same problems I had encountered in college groups).  That knowledge soon helped me realize that students certainly needed to learn to work in groups as a part of their educational experience.  However, as an educator with my own classroom of students, I quickly found that the theory of using peer groups and the practice of using peer groups were vastly different animals. 

Despite being a person who in my early years found that peer review sessions often became a completely unproductive activity, I never quite gave up trying different possibilities.  Fortunately, over the past few years, I’ve seen a real improvement of the peer review activities in my writing classroom.  For years I kept trying to develop better peer review activities to inspire my reviewers to take the process seriously.  My experience with peer review changed, however, when I decided to concentrate on developing the peer groups themselves rather than the just the activities.  Just like I need to feel some relationship with that co-worker before I’m willing to let him or her read my writing, and certainly before I am going to accept any suggestions, my students need to develop that trust relationship with their peer review group.  As a result, I’ve implemented a deliberate process of steps to develop groups over a period of time, a process that has made peer groups function much more effectively.  The process doesn’t take a lot of class time because I tie it into the learning objectives of the class, but it makes a big difference in how the groups then approach the peer reviews of their writing.

My Steps in Developing Peer Groups

Step 1: "Getting to Know You"

On the first day of class, I tell my students that three fears many people experience are talking to someone they don’t know, writing, and speaking before a group.  I then tell them that they are going to do all three things in the first two days of class, and that there will be nothing to fear from me after that—the worst that could happen will have already happened.

I go through a fairly elaborate process to initiate the interviews in my composition classes, because I want to teach them the writing process in everything we do.  Each student first has one minute to list possible “get acquainted” questions.  Then I have each student give one question which I write on the board.   Students then pair off, interview each other, exchange email addresses (and now Facebook accounts), and know that they will each write a one page (300 word) essay about the other person, and read that essay aloud in front of the class with the person to be introduced sitting beside the reader.

The purpose of this activity goes beyond reading the one page paper to the class; the students know from the syllabus that they will develop a network of five students to work with for the entire semester, and that these essays will give them a chance to decide who they want in their networks.  While I choose the introduction activity described above because it fits my overall objectives, there are many possible variations on the introduction activity; for example:

  • List three similarities and three differences you and the other person have.
  • List three unique traits about the person you interviewed that you believe no one else in the class has.
  • Play "truth or lie;" give five "facts" about the person, with one of them actually being a lie; allow the class to guess which is the lie.
  • If you need to limit class time used, have students post the introduction on BlackBoard and respond to two essays.

Regardless of how the introduction process is carried out, students know that they have the responsibility of choosing a network that they can work with, and the power to control which classmates they work with throughout the semester.  I get the writing sample that I always need at the beginning of the semester, and the students are empowered by determining their own groups.

Step 2: "What's in a Name?"

On a previously assigned day, usually the third day we meet, I give students five minutes at the end of class to develop their network.  I simply list the numbers 1-5 on the board five times and ask them to fill in the lists.  Anyone not included, I add to an available slot. At the next class period, their first network assignment is due; they must turn in a memo to me listing each member of the network, along with two methods of contact.  Each student in the network must also have a copy of the memo in his/her class notebook.

I deliberately use the name “network” rather than group because students often have such a negative connotation of “group work.”  I briefly discuss the importance of developing networks in their chosen career field, and then tie that into the importance of developing a network in each class they take.  I also make sure they know that I will not answer an email request for information about what they’ve missed in class unless they let me know they have contacted members of their network and what they’ve found out from them.  Thus I establish that the network is an important group of individuals, key to the success of each member in the class.

Step 3: "Did Anybody Read the Assignment?"

In an ideal world, students would not need external motivation to read assigned materials. However, it’s often difficult to motivate students to read without a “carrot and a stick” approach, even when they are reading literature.  When they are reading informational text or essays, motivation becomes even more important.  My students have to write journal responses to everything they read.  I check the entire journal at the end of the semester (for completeness only), so it’s no real grading chore for me, but they know it will “count” eventually.  I was already doing this before I began tying this practice in with the networks, so it doesn’t take extra time away from class.

When students come to class, I give them a few minutes in their networks with a specific question about their reading and journal assignment.  They have to designate a spokesperson (and it can’t be the same person each time) to share with the class, a process that leads into a general class discussion.  While they are doing this (about five minutes), I can walk around and stamp or sign off on their journal entries to show they had them on time (I don’t do this every time, but they don’t know when I will).  I also can quickly take roll by looking for the missing students in each group.  Even though students aren’t actually peer reviewing each other’s journal entries, they are beginning to feel comfortable sharing their writing with the members of their network and depending on each other.   Most students feel that they have let their network down when they don’t have a journal entry or haven’t read the assignment.

Step 4: "The Dreaded Peer Review Day"

I provide very detailed rubrics and very specific peer review forms on the first peer review.   I continue to work on these forms because I still often get simplistic rather than thoughtful answers, but I do hear a lot of positive interaction as I walk around and occasionally join in a peer discussion.  Providing a structured format for the peer review is very important.  The reviewer learns as much by looking for specified traits in the paper reviewed as he or she learns from the feedback.

If a student and a peer reviewer disagree about an issue in the writing, they can call me in for an opinion.  I require students to peer review at least three other papers, to go over the paper with the other student, and have the student sign indicating s/he has seen and understood the peer review form comments.  The form itself goes back to the reviewer to be included in the final copy of the project.  I’ve tried both ways: having the reviewer turn in the review, or having the person whose paper was reviewed turn it in.  It’s easier for me to give credit to the reviewer if it is with that student’s work; it makes it a little more difficult for the student, but it gives the credit to the person who did the work.  I don’t count off if a student doesn’t have reviews done on his/her paper, but whether the student completes reviews of other papers or not.  Even a student who doesn’t have a draft on peer review day still learns by reviewing other papers.

Because these students have already become bonded by their interaction with and dependence on each other during other class situations, they take a more serious viewpoint, and appear to be much more engaged, rather than rushing through a peer review.

Step 5: "Variety is the Spice of (Peer Review) Life"

I vary my methods of peer review.  Sometimes I have students read aloud to each other. Sometimes I use a “fill-in-the-blank” checklist; other times I use a checklist, but require the reviewer to respond in paragraph form.  When I used to have basically the same form each time, reviews got progressively weaker.  When I vary the format, students seem to pay more attention to doing a thorough job. Students tend to focus on the peer review as a way to catch mechanical and grammatical errors rather than global revision (and it does help with those).  Still, I know they are doing more than just proofreading during my conference with them later.  I often have students make comments like, “That’s exactly what Jim in my network said I needed to do,” when I discuss content and organization issues.

Step 6: "Evaluate the Evaluator"

At the end of each class, I have students turn in all graded and ungraded work they have done for the semester in a notebook.  They have to write an essay to introduce this notebook to me. Because I encourage them to evaluate their experiences in the class, they often discuss the semester long network review experience.  I always have several students who feel that the peer reviews were not helpful, usually students who were strong writers at the onset. Overwhelmingly, however, students are positive about the network experience.

Step 7: "We are Family"

The process of developing the peer review networks into a group of individuals that feel a connection and responsibility to each other helps overcome many of the original items listed as barriers to effective writing in university classes:

Barrier 1: Lack of a Realistic Audience for Writing

Students have an audience besides the instructor.  I’m not sure why a student would be willing to give the instructor hastily written, poorly researched information, but feels the need to work more on a paper peers will read, but I find that to be true with students.

Barrier 2: Lack of Student Motivation

Students motivate each other.  If a student comes to class on peer review day, and group members aren’t there, the student is quickly on the phone and email finding out why, and setting up a time to get the peer reviews done.  When I just had students exchange with someone who came and had the draft, it was very easy for students to just not show up if they didn’t have their rough draft ready; now they know their network is depending on them.

Barrier 3: Lack of Student Ability to Write

Stronger writers model for weaker writers, yet the stronger writers learn a lot about writing by trying to help weaker writers develop their papers.

Barrier 4: Lack of Student Confidence in Writing

Getting positive feedback from peer group and feeling like they are helping other writers gives students more confidence.  Students also feel that their writing is better when they give it to me, building confidence.

Barrier 5: Lack of Time for Individual Student/Instructor Interaction

When peer networks must check with each other first, I spend less time answering minor questions, giving me more time to interact with students on more important writing issues.  Students interact extensively with each other to provide further individual interaction.

Barrier 6: Lack of Instructor Grading Time

I don't grade all their writing, only their final products.

Support for Writing Theories

Along with removing some of the barriers to effective writing, the semester long development of the peer review network supports personal theories about writing that I listed earlier:

  • Writers need a real audience besides their teacher.
    The peer review network provides an audience.

  • Writers need to write extensively to improve their writing.
    Students write many journals and peer reviews that I just check off; their peers actually read these.

  • Writers need to read other writing to improve their own.
    Students get to read writing directed toward the same prompt they are reacting to; they also get to read the journal responses of fellow students which react toward other models of writing they have read in their textbooks.
The process supports other well-publicized theories about teaching writing:
  • Writers need feedback on their writing as part of revision.
    When members of the network feel a connection and a trust which they develop through the other activities as a network, they are more willing to give and receive feedback.  (I also help them avoid feeling “bad” about discussing a weakness with a fellow student by telling them to blame me:  “I understand your organization, but I think Ms. Wood is going to say . . .”)

  • Writers need to develop a process of writing that includes a willingness to seek and accept feedback and use the feedback to improve their writing.
    Students are learning to use the same concept of peer review for other classes and real life writing experiences.  When students write their last paper reviewing the activities in the class, they often comment on using these strategies for projects in other classes.

  • Teachers don't have time to read hundreds of pages of writing for each student.
    I do end up “checking through” all of the writing students have completed in their notebooks at the end of the semester, but that takes only a little while since I am not evaluating or marking.  I also go over their final products for each major paper very carefully, but these are better than they used to be because of the improvement in the peer review process.

Other Benefits in the Classroom

Writing networks have lots of side benefits for both the instructor and the students.  If a student can’t get to class, but still wants credit for that draft, s/he can email it to the network, and I’ll sign off on it when I sign off on their drafts.  I don’t have lots of email drafts arriving in my inbox at different times because students are out; I handle those in that same few minutes I handled the other in class.  

Students tend to feel responsible for others in their network.  If students miss more than one day, I ask their network about them.  I’ve even been calling roll before, and when I get to an absent individual’s name, a network member gives me a reason the student is out, or lets me know that the student is on the way (usually with info via a text message.)

Students know to seek information from the network before seeking information from me.  I get fewer unnecessary questions, and students don’t feel that they are “bothering” another student if s/he is a network member.


Of course, there are always problems—students who do nothing in the network or who stop attending.  I start with five in each group, but can work with groups of three.  If any two groups get down to three left in the class, I combine them.  I sometimes end up with a whole group of “deadbeats;”  they are a much weaker group, but they can’t complain that I put them together since they chose each other, or they all failed to show up on the day we developed the networks.  If a student tries desperately to review three papers, but gets no response from the other students, I don’t count off on that student’s project.  They write up an account of the attempts they made to peer review the other individuals (which is more writing practice with a real purpose), and I make individual exceptions.  I have let students “switch” groups, but very seldom.  I also occasionally divide students up by the response they had to an assignment rather than by their network just to have them interact with someone else.

Barriers Can Fall

As a writing teacher I try to remember that the Great Wall of China failed as a barrier but ended up being a transportation artery for China, and even the barrier wall of Berlin eventually fell, so once an instructor identifies the barriers to improving student writing or revision, he or she can look for the ways to overcome those barriers.  Developing semester long interactive peer networks is one way that I have found effective to reduce those barriers in my classroom.