Yesterday, the first day back after spring break, was so busy I didn't have time to write down any thoughts. It was also peer editing day in the sophomore honors seminar. That means students were to bring in their rough drafts for critiques from their peers. I'll be honest. I have never much liked peer editing day. I did not like it when I was a student and have never been fully satisfied with how peer editing goes as an instructor. The feedback I received when I was an undergrad was seldom helpful. I did not like evaluating other students' papers and felt awkward and not especially qualified while doing it.

As an instructor I have tried different approaches over the years to make it work better. Currently I use a standardized form so that students have specific questions to answer when they respond to their classmates' rough drafts. It asks readers to restate the thesis to test how clearly it was communicated, to check off objective elements required by the assignment, and to rate on a scale of one to four such things as material support, clarity of tone, mechanics, correctness, etc. This is far better than simply redistributing papers and asking students to make comments. At least the standardized form gives them some specific avenues for critique. Even so, it never seems to me that peer editing is very valuable.

Students work well for perhaps 20-25 minutes and then--like me when I am grading and don't want to--they grow restless and their attention flags. Some take it seriously, but some remind me of myself when I had to peer edit as a student. I imagine them sitting there thinking (as I did) why am I grading this? He's the professor. Isn't that what he's paid for? So I often ask the class at the end of peer editing day, "Was this helpful at all?" The students always say yes, but I am never convinced. I always tell myself to make a note of my dissatisfaction with peer editing and try something new next time. Then I forget to make a note, and before long I am once more standing in a room full of reading students and thinking, "I've never been happy with peer editing."

Okay, this is the damned note: please do something about peer editing.

So yesterday I wandered from table to table asking the students what would make peer editing day more useful for them. Many struggled to come up with any ideas on how it might be made more useful, but there were a few good suggestions. Some said they only wanted to critique those papers that were written on the same theme. That way they would get new ideas about a topic and feel more knowledgeable when responding. That was a good point. Part of what makes peer editing awkward is that students are not comfortable evaluating work.

Another good idea was to spread out peer editing and do it in smaller chunks. I liked this one. I could create peer editing in 15-minute increments spread over the weeks before a paper was due. There would one in which they shared their idea with classmates and received feedback. On another day have their material support and research reviewed by others. Then, a week or so later, they would share each other's RCFDs (really crappy first drafts); then we would do a regular rough draft critique day.

Lastly, just before the paper was due, I might might run them through a final pre-flight checklist: Title page? Check. Pagination? Check. Avoiding pronoun/antecedent error? Check. Remembering to make a note on how you have always planned to redesign peer editing day: Check.


Anti-Dada said…
It seems to me that you hit on what could (should?) become your focus on peer review when you mentioned the students' weak evaluation skills. Perhaps that is the direction to go, using peer review as an exercise in building those skills. Being able to make judgments based on particular criteria or even a particular way of thinking would actually be useful for them in terms of improving their own writing (and thinking).

Being able to make judgments is crucial in life. The reason students probably struggle with peer review is likely related to their struggles to understand what it is that they are judging. They're still in the process of understanding how to actively and creatively engage in developing an understanding of concepts that are still relatively new to them and, likely, radical departures from everyday thinking.

So, on that level, peer review might be a useful teaching/learning exercise. Just a thought, anyway.
Professor Quest said…
Thanks AD,

I spoke with a few of our composition experts and they said to get far away from the idea of asking students to critique each others papers; rather, they said to have students talk to each other about their essays. Get them to explain to each other what they are trying to do, who they are writing for, and what aspects are causing them difficulty. And don't call it peer editing. No body likes to edit, but they do like to talk about their process of writing and the problems they are having.

The emphasis should be on giving the student author "authority" in the process and allowing them to ask for response on issues they want to improve. In five minutes these two great teachers had completely given me an entirely new way to think about how to do this. It was just what I needed. Ironically, too, it was the same philosophy of teaching I use in other areas. I just couldn't think differently or see it until I deliberately asked for an outside perpspective.

One of the difficulties in this job is how isolated you are from other practitioners. Anthropologists say that cultures do not advance until they bump into another culture and thinks, "Whoa, look how those guys make their spearpoints. That's interesting. I wonder what would happen if we added their idea to ours?" You spend a lot of time alone in the jungle in this job. You get stuck in your thinking and approach, and then the whole "I'm the expert" professorial schtick makes you fearful of showing anyone your crummy spearpoints.

Man, you have to overcome that or your dead pretty fast.
Professor Quest said…
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