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My students always hate peer reviews by fellow students. They hate sharing their work. They hate reading one another’s work.

The most common complaint I hear about peer review from students is when their peer says the paper was good, and then I comment on it only to say that it’s actually not good yet. They say it’s useless -- if they don’t know what they’re doing with their papers, why would their peers know? And if they’re going to get comments from me anyway, why do they have to go through an entire class period of peer review?

I admit that peer-review days have felt empty to me at times. Sometimes days spent swapping papers can feel like just filler, just another department requirement fulfilled. Nevertheless, I’ve tried different techniques to make peer review work.

I’ve made worksheets with fill-in-the-blank slots and yes/no options. I’ve gone paragraph by paragraph with students reading out loud, asking them to check for specific things as we go. I’ve given time afterward for them to talk to their partner and revise based on their comments. I’ve started grading the peer reviews by adding it into their rough draft grade. I’ve reasoned with them that it helps them become better editors. I’ve told them that their draft will be in better shape before I get it (i.e., they’ll probably get a better grade). And they still hate it.

So I wonder: What is the point of peer reviews? What exactly are students reading for? How are they supposed to talk to one another and work with one another’s comments?

I’ve always thought that the main point was to make them better readers. It’s important for students to know the difference between good and bad writing. If they’re spending 14 weeks reading really good writing (which I put on the syllabus), they should be able to notice that Alice Walker’s prose is stronger than their peer’s. Then, hopefully, they should be able to return to their own work and see ways to make it better, too. But how?

The Rat in the Lab

I decided to pair my students up this semester throughout their writing and revision process for each paper. From prewriting, to drafts, to better drafts, instead of getting matched up randomly, they would stick with one person the whole time. This way, I figured, students could see their partner’s growth. They would also be writing knowing that I wasn’t their only audience. It wouldn’t be just about satisfying the professor -- it would also be about keeping their peers interested.

In a way, it turned peer review into a lab, and their paper partners became a lot like lab partners. Through that exercise, students learned a great deal: some partners care more. Some are smarter than you. Some will often be absent. And you need to find a way to get through it no matter how they act. Maybe your partner needs you more than you need them. And that’s OK, because at the start of the next paper in a few weeks, you’ll be in a new partnership with a completely different dynamic.

When I studied learning psychology as an undergrad student, the course had a lab component that involved training a rat all semester to hit a lever to get food. My lab partner was there the first day, and she seemed cool. But then I never saw her again. It didn’t help that my rat turned out to be hyperaware of its situation and refused to touch the lever. He literally did not care about eating. And those rats were starved all day long to be desperate and hungry by the time we came around. I would spend, like, 45 minutes in a stare down with this white rat in a dirty room all by myself. I got a C-plus in lab because I didn’t technically train the rat.

That’s part of the reason why I wanted to make sure that, for each paper (they write three for me during the semester), my students switch to a different partner and a different project. That gave them three solid chances to track someone’s writing process along with their own, to be responsible for producing work for their partner to read and to practice working with different kinds of partners. It’s important to know when you’re more useful to them than they may be to you, I told them. It’s not permanent -- it’s not life or death. Help where you can help and get helped, too.

They ended up swapping work about five times for one paper. They would post their prewriting or drafts into a discussion board post and then find their partner’s post to do revisions before returning them back. Once their papers were returned, I gave them some time to go through their partner’s comments before actually submitting the assignment.

What happened? To my surprise, I didn’t have to tell them to find their partners to talk afterward. They wanted to talk to one another. They wanted to clear up what they really meant. They actually learned each other’s names faster than I did. They might not always want to talk to me about their work, but it turned out that they did want to talk to each other.

As the final swap came along a couple days before final draft was due, I somewhat dreaded asking them how they felt about peer reviewing because of the negative feedback I’ve gotten in the past. But they said they liked it. They felt responsible for handing in decent work and writing better. They paid attention to what things their partner changed, based on their advice. They saw growth in each other’s work and felt motivated to improve alongside them.

Some people wanted to keep their partners. Some people realized that they needed to be a better partner the next time around. One person said they had never revised a paper in their life, but they liked doing it now. Their peers’ papers weren’t just nameless documents anymore. Suddenly, they mattered.

In a freshman writing class, we faculty often focus on making students better writers and readers. But in trying to get my students to care about writing, I had to get them to care about editing. I know, as a writer, that revision is most of the work. In asking them to edit and work with someone as they revise, they’re put in a different reading position than when they read assigned essays.

When students read for class, they’re probably looking for things to say during the discussion or just to understand the general narrative. But when they read each other’s work as it progressed and changed, they were finally thinking of ways to make academic writing readable.

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