Another huge stack of papers to grade. So as good teachers of writing we bundle them up in our arms and take them home, make a big pot of coffee (or brew some tea), and spend countless hours commenting and grading, alone. What are we doing? And why? More importantly, what are the students doing (or not doing)? And why?
A recent Inside Higher Ed article discussed the experimental work  of Duke University’s Cathy Davidson, involving students grading themselves. According to Davidson, when students are held responsible for assessing their own — and their peers’ — writing performances and products, they learn to take more responsibility for their own learning, and consequently apply themselves much more energetically to their work. In response, Leonard Cassuto of Fordham University points to the fact that at least 15 of Davidson’s 16 students in this experiment earned As for the course. Cassuto sees that as a problem and argues that professors need to be the ones saying  “You did good work, but not the best in the class.”
I think I may have somewhat of a compromise when it comes to assessing student written work. I was in the same situation as many writing instructors for years. Students write, write, write. Then I would spend about five minutes per page supplying written commentary individually on each of their papers. But about a year ago I started doing things differently. And I don’t plan on going back any time soon.
First students in all my courses form groups of three the first week of the term. I allow students to initially form their own groups, but sometimes I have to make adjustments as the term progresses. They exchange contact information. These "home groups" become the basis of their peer review and response writing groups (as well as other collaborative activities). All the writing for the course also goes into online file sharing space. Students post first drafts of their papers into a file. Then they peer-review each other’s papers. Next they discuss and consider their partners’ commentary. (This usually occurs in-class since we are fortunate enough to be in wired, computer-equipped classrooms. There I am also able to circulate among the groups and contribute commentary and answer questions.) Then students rewrite their papers and resubmit to a second draft file. Then I go in for my commentary.
But not alone -- not anymore.
Since I scaffold my sequences of writing assignments so that smaller papers serve to build up to larger papers, I do not comment on the smaller ones myself — although they do undergo the peer review process described above and are included in the midterm and final collected-works portfolio. (This is a method advocated by John Bean in his influential book Engaging Ideas , for all teachers of writing.) Instead, once students have written the larger paper (usually three per term) I meet with each writing group in person. We all sit around the computer screen and read each person’s paper and supply interactive commentary. Usually I write in the notes and commentary for the students. But sometimes, depending, I’ll have students write the notes and commentary themselves. I end up spending about the same amount of time per paper as I would commenting in isolation. (I save all of my grading until the midterm portfolio, then again at the end with the final portfolio. One of the key elements of the portfolio is substantial student critical self-reflection of their writing strengths and weaknesses. Like Davidson, I do ask students what they feel they’ve earned as a grade for the course. But I do not depend solely on students’ self-assessments.)
What I’ve found over the past year is that this method brings together everything I value most about the teaching and learning of writing. Students learn to become better readers of their own papers through this collaborative, iterative and dynamically recursive process. The movement of group commentary from the classroom, to my office, back to the classroom, and into the students’ papers mimics the social construction of knowledge made popular by teacher-scholars like John Dewey and Kenneth Bruffee and educational and learning researchers like Albert Bandura, Jerome Bruner and Lev Vygotsky (and practiced every day in writing centers and other peer tutoring programs across the country). It also makes my job more interesting. It takes what I had started to consider the somewhat dreary act of grading countless papers and turns it into a synergistic, multi-vocal, live conversation.
And I am starting to share and hone this method with my graduate teaching assistants and fellow instructors. A former TA of mine, Stephanie Serenita, comments on a particularly successful experience with this method: "I found that throughout the group tutoring session, the three students were offering more help and insight than I could try to muster, in between their vigorous comments and thoughts on the paper at hand. Although I felt as though I wasn’t participating as a teacher ‘should’ during this tutoring session, I couldn’t help but be astounded and proud that these three students were teaching each other, and in turn, themselves. It wasn’t all about me and my intellectual ability and what I thought could help their papers. Rather, it was about the students — what they know, how they can help their papers grow and, in turn, how they were growing as writers and co-learners of the craft."
As a group we can see each other’s facial expressions, hear the tone and quality of our words, qualify our statements, and answer questions, concerns or confusions immediately.
I’ve had students repeatedly comment on how much they appreciate this method. One student recently said, "I really like this way of getting feedback because a lot of times I don’t know what the teacher means in their comments on my paper."
Granted, this can be a physically intensive method, just as one-to-one conferences and tutorials are. It also requires a bit of scheduling and organizing that can sometimes be tricky. And, of course, like any other teaching-and-learning activity, sometimes students won’t want to play happily along like the students Serenita speaks of above.
Commenting on what she felt was a less-successful session, Serenita observes, "In the second group session I held that day, none of the three students came prepared. The first student who we focused on had his first draft instead of his second, which we had just looked at as a class during our last session. Already having revised this paper three days prior, how productive could his session be? The second student only had half of his first draft written, with little to no focus in his paper. Is it then the instructor’s job to point him in the direction he needs? My knee-jerk reaction would be ‘yes,’ but why should a teacher give a student answers and a direction if he came without any questions prepared concerning his paper and especially with the lack of work he had put in? The second student didn’t seem to mind that he was wandering in the dark, which eventually led the entire group to amble with his half-hearted paper. The third student, like the second, came in with under half of what was supposed to be the completed second draft. At this point I started to wonder if this group was ever going to find their way out of the shadows. It is at this point that I pointed out how unproductive this session had been. Their final draft was due soon, and with little to no changes or improvement in anyone’s paper, I didn’t really see the helpfulness of this peer tutoring session."
But even in this seemingly bleak situation Serenita came to see a glimmer of hope. She continues, "It was at that point that one of the group members started to speak about what he hopes to accomplish in his paper and how he means to get there. This jump-started a productive conversation between the group members about their papers and where they wanted to take them next. In the end, the maturity level of the group rose, I believe, leaving them understanding what went wrong in this group session and how it could be more productive the next time."
Yes, sometimes sessions don’t go as swimmingly as we might hope. But by and large my students and I are so happy with this method that I wouldn’t dream of going back to my old ways. And, granted, this method might not sound appealing to everyone. Many writing instructors, for example, teach several courses at several different colleges at once. These teachers may find it quite difficult to arrange and conduct face-to-face group tutorials.
Maybe some teachers like, or feel they need, to give written feedback (or even assign grades to every paper) the way they do. Perhaps they’ve made peace with it and developed feedback strategies that work well for them and their students. And, sure, “grading” papers will always be part of our jobs. But, personally and professionally, I would rather spend my physical and mental energies now experimenting with ways to make this method work better for me and my students, together.
Steven J. Corbett is assistant professor of English and co-coordinator of the composition program at Southern Connecticut State University. More tips on using student peer review may be found here.