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4.3: Peer Review as Collaboration

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  • One of the most common types of collaboration done in writing classes comes in the form of in-class “group work” or as peer review sessions.  Peer review has become a common practice for contemporary composition and rhetoric classrooms. Basically, it is the process where small groups of students read, comment on, and make suggestions for other student’s work.  

    While successful peer review can be hard and takes practice, it really can work.  But first, you have to be willing to accept two premises.  

    • Your fellow students have valid comments to make on your writing projects.  Students often assume that the only person whose opinion really matters is the teacher because, after all, the teacher is the one who assigns the grade.  I understand the logic of the assumption that the “teacher is always right,” but I don’t think it’s true.  

    The best writing projects are ones that strive to fulfill a purpose and reach an audience that is beyond a particular class and a particular teacher.  But beyond that, your classmates represent an audience you should be trying to reach.  You should listen to your classmate’s suggestions because they are in same writing situation as you. After all, they too are trying to reach an audience that includes their fellow classmates, and they are also writing a project that will have to be read and evaluated by the teacher.  

    • All writing projects can be improved by revision.  Sometimes we have an overly romantic view of writing and of writers who are able to create “great works” without ever having to make any real changes.  Rarely (if ever) has this been the case.  Any writing project can be improved with revision.  

    As straightforward as these premises might be, they can often be difficult to accept.  But with practice, patience, and work with your classmates, seeing these premises as valid becomes easier.

    How peer review can work, step by step

    I offer the following advice on how to get started with peer review sessions as a “recipe” where ingredients and methods can be altered to fit the particulars of the class, the writing project, time limitations, and so forth.  After all, you and your teacher probably have ideas on what will or won’t work for peer review in your specific contexts.

    • With the help of your teacher, break into groups of three to five students.  Groups of five work well only if the writing project you are considering is short or if you have a lot of class time to go over each project.  I would also recommend not working in pairs since that overly limits the size of the audience.  

    Some students and teachers like to work with the same peer collaborators for the entire semester, while others like to work with different collaborators with each project.  

    • Exchange a copy of your writing project with each person in the group.  You should come to the peer review session class with several copies of your writing project to share with others in your peer review group.  
    • Select someone to start, and have that person read their essay out loud while the other members of the group read along.  The extent to which you will be able to read your essays out loud will vary according to the particular circumstances of your class and of the assignment, but I would encourage you to try to include this step in the process of in-class peer review.  Actually reading your writing out loud to others gives the reader and writer a real sense of the voice of an essay and is a great way for writers and readers to catch small grammar errors.
    • While the writer “up” is reading, the readers should read along, marking comments in the margins of the draft they are reading.  As a reader, you should note points you hope to come back to in group discussion.  You can also mark any grammatical errors you might notice as you read.
    • When the writer is done reading, the readers should provide their comments.  This is not the time for the writer to explain things that the readers say they didn’t understand.  Rather, this is the time for the writer to listen to what the other members of the group have to say.  

    This is a crucial part of the process because the questions that readers have are ones that point to changes the writer should make in revision rather than being answered in person.  After all, you will never be able to be there when other readers (your teacher or other people in your audience) try to understand your writing project.  Readers’ questions have to be anticipated and answered in the writing itself.  So, the role of the person who just finished reading is to try and be as open-minded (and open-eared!) to their classmates’ advice as possible.

    Giving good advice to classmates in peer review sessions can be a tricky process.  Readers often have a hard time expressing their comments to the person who’s writing is being discussed.  On the one hand, it isn’t productive or nice to say things that might hurt the writer’s feelings; but on the other hand, it also isn’t productive to be so nice as to not say anything that can help the writer.  So the goal here should be to somehow balance the two:  advice that is “nice,” but also constructive.

    Here are two suggestions to help make this step of readers giving writers  constructive advice a bit easier:  

    • Try to keep the focus of the constructive advice on the big issues. By “the big issues,” I mean things like the clarity of the points the writer is trying to make, the use of evidence, the points where readers are particularly persuaded or particularly confused, and so forth.  This is not to say things like grammar and proofreading and such are not important—far from it.  But those issues are more about “proofreading” than they are about changing the substance of an essay.  
    • Consider some of the questions I have at the end of each of the chapters in Part Two of the book, “Exercises in the Process of Research.”  Each of the chapters in this part of the book end with sections titled “Questions to Ask While Writing and Researching” and “Review and Revision.” The questions you should consider very according to the writing exercise, but the goal is always the same:  what changes can you make to your writing project to make it more accessible to your readers?

    Making revisions as a result questions like these (and the ones provided by your teacher) will make it much easier for you and your group members to give each other useful advice, and it will also help keep the group on task.

    A few final things to remember about successful peer review

    • Peer review takes practice.  If you don’t think peer review works that well for you and your classmates the first time you try it, give it another chance with a different writing project.  Like most things in writing (or life!) that are rewarding and useful, good peer review takes practice and time.  If you stick with it, you’ll see that the peer review sessions you have toward the end of term are much more productive than the ones at the beginning of the term.
    • If you don’t get good advice about your writing projects in class, seek out advice elsewhere.  Show a draft of your writing project to someone who’s opinion you value—friends, family, classmates—and ask them for suggestions in making the project better.  If your school has a writing center, writing lab, or other sort of tutoring center, take a copy of the writing project to it and have a staff member look at your work.
    • It is always still up to you to choose what advice you want to follow. Inevitably, you will receive advice from your reviewers that is conflicting or that is advice you simply don’t agree with.  That is okay.  Remember that you are not under any obligation to incorporate all the suggestions you receive, and part of the process of becoming a better writer is learning for yourself when you need to follow advice and when you need to follow your own instincts.
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