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In our experience, peer-feedback or peer-review exercises offer a distinct opportunity in the classroom: students can benefit from both giving and receiving written input from others in all disciplines. Indeed, incorporating such a process as part of a larger instruction arc can offer students more feedback than a single instructor can reasonably provide and foster a sense of community among students as colleagues. It can also empower them to see themselves as independent learners, help them sharpen their critical capacity for self-assessment and even destabilize academic hierarchies that are often embedded in classrooms.
Yet until recently, written peer-feedback sessions were some of the toughest workshops we facilitated during our teaching careers. Our main experience of peer feedback is in the writing classroom, where writing feedback is a core activity, but we have heard our observations about feedback echoed by many other colleagues across disciplines. Facilitating and assessing feedback activities can often leave us drained, dissatisfied and even frustrated, as we witness our students’ discomfort throughout the peer-review process and subsequently read their minimal (and often not that helpful) comments on their peers’ work.
Many of our students have voiced the same concerns. They report that feedback exercises can exacerbate some of their insecurities, as they “don’t like the idea of being judged by one of [their] peers,” and they “do not know what type of feedback [their] instructor [is] asking me [to give].” Some even contend that these comments feel pointless, as “realistically, it is the instructor’s feedback that matters.” Our students’ reflections point to the fact that sharing work is a vulnerable act, particularly in a culture where student performances and professional paths are driven by the grades that instructors assign.
In addition, students are often unsure of how to give feedback in an effective or accurate way—and they are certainly not versed in “feedback literacy,” the complex art of receiving and processing written feedback shared with them. Another complication is that students often offer feedback that is intended to prompt their peers to align their work more closely with the hierarchical and oppressive realities of much university work. When we refer to academic hierarchies, we mean the attitudes and structures that allow already-privileged students to succeed more easily in university environments—such as, but not limited to, privileges related to being white, cisgender, financially stable, neurotypical and having familiarity with academic discourse and university expectations. Unless conducted carefully, peer feedback can replicate harmful power structures in the classroom, especially for students who may not have been exposed to academic-style feedback in their earlier education or those who may have been struggling with a sense of worth and belonging in academe. In sum, research indicates that all students feel the limitations of the peer-feedback process, and as such, do not always reap the full benefits that such activities can offer.
Partly because of those challenges, our perspective on peer-feedback activities in our classes has evolved over time. The reality is that peer-review activities require guidance and structure—a fact supported in research by scholars such as by Marjo van Zundert, Dominique Sluijsmans and Jeroen van Merriënboer. We now recognize that the acts of writing, receiving and assessing feedback are different but complementary facets of a complicated process that includes teaching students: 1) how to give comprehensive, detailed, thorough, respectful and supportive feedback; 2) how to receive it with openness, grace and flexibility; and 3) how to assess its effectiveness. That demands ongoing intent, regular training and practice by both students and instructors, and each step needs to be scaffolded like any other content-based lesson or skill set we teach.
As we have changed our approach, offering more structure, guidance and practice opportunities to students, we’ve made significant improvements in the process and outcomes of peer-review activities. We offer the following suggestions to others to help improve the quality of the peer-feedback process. In compiling this list, we have drawn from our own experience and research, along with discussions with our students and colleagues.
Share with students the rationale behind integrating peer feedback as a vital part of the learning and teaching that happens in the class. Explain why feedback is an important aspect of academic discourse and community building and how it helps disrupt classroom hierarchies by encouraging students to see themselves as active participants who create—instead of passive recipients who merely receive—academic discourse. Highlight the students’ agency in selecting what feedback to integrate and what not to, and how giving it effectively can help boost their skills. Explicitly integrate feedback into course lessons and demonstrate how it can illuminate them.
Acknowledge in conversation with students that the process can be behavioral and emotional for many people. In other words, some people may feel particularly uncomfortable, vulnerable or anxious during the peer-review process, and we need to teach students that the way we share feedback matters. For example, a feedback giver may write a short comment that a sentence is “awkward” or “too personal” simply because of their expectations of what is “allowed” in university writing—which ultimately risks keeping student writing tied to outdated and even oppressive habits. Providing connections to campus mental health supports may be appropriate in this discussion.
Model for students the process of giving feedback as a group or in class. Telling personal stories of your evolving experiences with giving and receiving feedback throughout your academic career—undergraduate, graduate and teaching—can be an effective exercise. Or you can have students collaborate on sample feedback or discuss examples of effective and not so effective feedback.
Use detailed rubrics, checklists, prompts or other structures to assist students in developing their feedback. One useful technique is to start with worksheet-assisted feedback, whereby students are asked to answer specific questions in response to their peers’ work. Provide starting points for their sentences, for example: “I find the section on … helpful in …” or “Your feedback on the secondary sources I integrated seems to suggest that … Is that what you had in mind?”
Provide explicit instruction on what to do with feedback and if and how you will assess it. There are many ways a faculty member might do this: treating qualitative written feedback as an act of analysis is one, such that faculty members might assess feedback as though it were a critical essay. To continue with the example given above, in the situation where one student felt another student’s writing was “awkward,” the instructor might assess how well the feedback giver provided tangible evidence, explained how they arrived at the conclusion that a given sentence was written awkwardly and offered suggestions in a clearly structured and nonjudgmental way.
Include a reflection element to help students process the experiences of both giving and receiving feedback. As part of that reflection, consider two-part peer-review sessions, during which students are allowed time to revise or expand on the feedback they have given, ask questions about the feedback they have received, and decide how to move forward.
We have witnessed firsthand how transformative these strategies have been in our classrooms. We’ve dedicated entire lectures to discussing feedback and having students work through stronger and weaker examples of feedback as a group. Inviting students to share their own experiences with unsatisfying or even harmful feedback, and then engaging in group discussion that relates to how that feedback could improve, has resulted in students having a much higher awareness of the risks and benefits of feedback and helped them give much stronger feedback to one another.
That said, we want to acknowledge that implementing these approaches takes substantial time for training and planning. They may not be workable or realistic for many of our contractual colleagues or those with heavy teaching loads. They may also require a great deal of trial and error.
We also realize these recommendations will not address all of the potential challenges involved in the feedback process, but we hope that the insights and reflections we have shared here can be a starting point for changing how you might approach the feedback process in your classroom. If we could leave you with one thought, it would be this: teaching feedback, instead of just assigning feedback, can go a long way toward improving the experience and learning outcomes for your students. And as we go forward, we hope we will all consider ways to incorporate written feedback activities in the classroom more integrally, heartily and ethically.