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Even before complications wrought by AI, faculty members and students alike have often dreaded college writing assignments—students because of painful past histories with the process and faculty because of time-consuming, often-frustrating, grading experiences. Having students respond to each other’s drafts, however, could mitigate both problems.

Understandably, some instructors avoid peer responding because they feel it is a waste of time. And it can be, if students are not prepared. But there are ways to make peer responding worthwhile and several good reasons to embrace it. One lesser known yet consistent research result regarding writing and revision is the surprising role that peer responding plays in improving the writing of the responder.

How Not to Do Peer Feedback

Do not try this without training students. Left to their own devices, students typically call what they do “peer editing” and may simply mimic how others have attacked their work in the past with red-inked fury. Many “edits,” however, are themselves incorrect. In reading peer feedback, I often see a well-constructed but long sentence labeled a “run-on” and a short but complete sentence called a “fragment.” I’ve seen peer edits include all sorts of bad advice on adding or deleting commas, with real errors being overlooked. In fact, as researcher Chris Anson found in his study published in 2021, student editors found only about a tenth of errors made by the writers. Further, about one out of four “errors” they found were not errors at all. If students are simply let loose to critique other students’ writing, the results can be disastrous.

Common problems stemming from unprepared responders include:

  • Giving only minimal, generic comments, such as “Check your grammar” or “Great job!”
  • Being unable to provide constructive suggestions for improvement
  • Failing to recognize or name specifically what the writer may be doing well—important in encouraging writers to continue doing whatever feature is being praised

Preparing Students to Give Helpful Feedback

We can avoid most of these pitfalls by giving students quick, guided practice before they respond to their peers. I’ve provided some recommendations below.

Distinguish between editing and responding. In my class, we first distinguish between editing and responding. Editing, the hunt for surface error—typos, comma errors and the like—is best left to when the draft is essentially finished. Close editing too early can interrupt the writer’s flow of ideas or waste time fixing sentences from paragraphs they may delete in a later draft. While a few students might not be bad editors, I’ve found that many people need too much background knowledge and experience to do it well. Sometimes editing is best done by the writers themselves, after some tips on how to proofread carefully.

Instead, we need to teach students to respond to a draft. Responding is both more intellectually challenging and more useful. It’s also easier to teach. Students can learn to comment honestly and constructively in a few practice sessions. Peer responding on drafts, at least at first, should focus on the reader’s reaction to content and to features that make the writing work. That might be the writer’s smart use of attention getters, personal examples, humor, reliable evidence or whatever is appropriate for the specific writing project.

Teach students how to give specific responses. Using just a bit of class time, I teach my students to provide both supportive and constructive comments regarding the writer’s content, development, organization and so on. Using some simple sentence starters or stems, students learn to respond in a positive way to specific moves the writer is doing well. In his well-known article on instructor commentary, Donald A. Daiker supports giving praise and credits Donald Murray for pioneering a sentence starter such as, “I like the way you …” When students use this stem, it forces specificity, preventing useless generic comments. To avoid embarrassing individual students, we practice on a draft no one in the class has written. Sometimes we use a student paper available in the public domain or a draft I’ve created for this purpose.

Model the process. After we read the sample draft together, I introduce the sentence starters so students can practice. First, I model the process:

  • “I like the way the writer uses a transition here.”
  • “I like the way the writer defines that technical term for readers who might not know it.”
  • “I like the way the writer begins in medias res—that is, in the middle of the conflict—to get us engaged right away.”

In their book on teaching writing, Leila Christenbury and Ken Lindblom also provide excellent examples of specific, supportive comments that instructors or students can make while responding.

Teach students to use specific praise. Why point out what’s working? While teaching driver education many years ago, I learned very quickly that new, nervous drivers need to calm down a bit before they can think straight and pay attention to the road, rather than their own panicky feelings. Overly anxious writers, like overly anxious drivers, do not perform at their best. When I could point out little things new drivers were doing well (“Nice, smooth braking this time!”), they remembered to brake smoothly in the future. As their confidence grew, they could focus less on being scared and more on driving.

So, too, with writers, especially underconfident ones. They need to be told when they succeed at something. My experience with new drivers needing specific praise is supported by decades of research summarized by composition scholar Nancy Mack: the best commentary from instructors includes specific, positive comments, as well as just a few options for revision. So student responders need to learn how to notice and name what their peers are doing well.

Teach how to phrase suggestions for revision. A different sentence starter can help provide specific suggestions for revision: “I’d like to know more about …” Using this stem, student responders learn to provide constructive feedback in a tactful way: “I’d like to know more about the reasons supporting your claim here,” or “I’d like to know more about this term you mention,” or “I’d like to know more about why that person inspired you.”

Instructors can design their own sentence stems to help students respond to writing projects specific to their own course. For example, responders finishing the stem “You seem to be arguing that …” (for thesis-driven projects) is a handy way for writers to make sure their thesis is clear to readers or that they have one at all.

What the Research Shows

Strong, consistent research over the years has shown significant benefits to student responders. Back in 1978, Kenneth Bruffee wrote about his research results on a peer tutoring program, one result of which “was almost entirely unexpected: the effect on the peer tutors [emphasis in original] of tutoring and its class­room counterpart, the organized, progressive, collaborative process of peer criticism.” Bruffee goes on to elaborate on those findings, which showed a marked increase in the quality of the responders’ writing. Similarly, in their study of students giving feedback to second language writing, Kristi Lundstrom and Wendy Baker in 2009 found that the students who provided the feedback “made more significant gains in their own writing over the course of the semester” than writers receiving the feedback.

In 2017, Sarah Chanski and Lindsay Ellis reported on their study, which also showed that the writing of the students doing the responding improved more than did the writing of the students receiving the responses. More recently, in 2020, in his large-scale review of previous studies on peer response, Dan Melzer found that “Students learn as much from reading their peers’ drafts as they do from the comments they receive from peer responders or the instructor.” Melzer’s finding might be both surprising and comforting to overworked writing instructors.

Why Do Peer Responders Gain the Most?

Writers, of course, can benefit from seeing how other readers react to their drafts, and instructors benefit by receiving a writing project that has gone through at least one round of revision based on feedback from trained responders. But why is it that research dating back decades and stretching up to the present suggest that the skills developed through peer feedback are most helpful to the responders themselves?

The intellectual focus students develop in order to notice and comment on other people’s drafts may offer one reason. By reading other people’s drafts and observing what works and what doesn’t, students come back to their own writing with a more developed sense of what readers look for in writing. They can then apply this new knowledge to their own work.

Yes, it takes a portion of class time to teach students how to provide specific, tactful commentary on what their peers are doing well and where they can improve. But the payoff is well worth it. Students learn to think about their own content, claims, evidence, organization, transitions and other features they notice in their classmates’ work. If you assign writing in your courses, consider taking advantage of this powerful knowledge-building tool.

Patricia A. Dunn is professor of English at Stony Brook University. She has written five books, four of them focused on the teaching of writing, and her most recent is Drawing Conclusions: Using Visual Thinking to Understand Complex Concepts in the Classroom (Teachers College Press).

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