I learned the hard way about some of the pitfalls involved in inviting students to perform peer-review of each other’s writing. It seems like such a good idea. Weak writers can learn from their peers who are stronger writers. Talking to each other about writing seems like a good way to spend some student-centered class time. Students can speak to each other about writing-related issues in their own language, which might be more accessible than how I say things. Young writers can garner individual attention for their writing more efficiently than if their teacher is the sole source of feedback.
So why does peer editing tend to be so ineffective? Why does it frequently cause more problems than it solves while not making much difference in students’ writing ability? I think it comes down to this: Young writers are motivated by feedback that it is individualized, relevant, and supportive, and peer review rarely synergizes those three elements and sometimes doesn’t achieve any of them.
Peer review of writing operates on a problematic paradox. Writing is personal while peer review is social. When we require students to take their personal words based on their personal ideas and personal experiences and subject them to “constructive criticism” from others, we’re asking for trouble. The social constructs in a classroom are complex, especially in middle school and high school. Putting a student’s writing out there as the agenda for social transactions is emotionally dangerous. From a learning perspective, stronger students don’t gain much from their weaker peers. When weaker writers are paired with other weak writers, we have the blind leading the blind. Either way, the weaker writers usually know how they are being pigeonholed, which does little for the confidence necessary in developing writers.
Peer editing usually takes one of two forms. Sometimes students are paired up or divided into small groups, and then they read each other’s papers with the expectation that they will provide comments or corrections. Another format frequently used is a writer-of-the-day format where one student’s writing is read by a larger group of peers who then discusses it while the writer listens and presumably learns from the classmates’ comments.
To my chagrin, I’ve lived through horrific examples of each of these. Too many times I’ve seen students emerge from those pass-around sessions with a few misspelled words circled and a vague “Good job” scribbled across the top. Too often these kinds of sessions default to grammar and other mechanical issues that are easy to define in terms of correctness. Larger issues of clarity, organization, development, and appeal are more difficult for students to articulate to one another so they receive little attention. Sometimes students think it’s OK to use this situation to score points against those not in their social group or with less social capital. Not much learning about writing happens from any of that.
I’ve also seen critique sessions with larger groups dominated by a student wearing a mental beret who, deeming herself The Best Writer in the Class, rips into other students’ writing with withering commentary. These sessions require immediate interventions and some follow-up one-on-one talks with the students involved. Even when the verbal comments are more appropriate, the student whose work is under consideration is frequently so uncomfortable that she doesn’t learn very much.
Despite these difficulties, peer editing is worthwhile, and it can work!
Here are three things I’ve learned about peer editing that teachers can roll out easily and use immediately.
Replace criticisms with suggesticisms. After a negative class workshop session like the one described above, I made up a new word.
Suggesticism (noun): A criticism paired with a suggestion.
I announced that I was imposing a new rule. Henceforth, criticism of other students’ writing would be replaced by suggesticisms. We would no longer allow a criticism without an accompanying suggestion.
I explained that a criticism might sound like this: “The metaphor in your third line—‘green as Mountain Dew puke’—is gross and offensive.” A suggesticism, however, works like this: “The metaphor in your third line—‘green as Mountain Dew puke’—is gross and offensive. Would you consider trying ‘green as a lime rind’ instead?”
This might be the best idea I’ve ever had. As I said above, student writers are motivated by feedback that is individualized, relevant, and supportive. Using suggesticisms definitely improved that motivation. In addition, suggesticisms require those giving comments to move beyond merely recognizing what they don’t like in a piece of writing to articulating at least one better way of doing it. Student writers frequently end up with numerous ideas about how to revise a passage or some aspect of their writing. The added positivity was a plus for all concerned, and it was a kick to see how the new word became part of our classroom culture.
In general, peer review works best when students are fairly homogenous in ability. In a homogenous class, some of the social factors are mitigated when students see writing from other students that has common ground with their own writing. If a class isn’t particularly homogenous, peer review may not be the most effective revision activity for those students.
Empower writers to retain control of their work. Too often peer review sessions require writers to hand over control of their writing to others who may not have the compassion or competence to deal with it responsibly or respectfully. A brilliant colleague developed a technique based on the work of Peter Elbow which allows each writer to maintain control of his own work and decide what is discussed by his reviewers.
The student whose work is being considered develops a set of questions to guide reviewers, and reviewers respond only to those questions posed by the writer. Students are encouraged to create questions focused on specific issues and avoid mere mechanical concerns that can be cleaned up in later drafts. Here are examples of successful specific questions from my colleague Russ Anderson:
- What do you think about the transition to 3rd person POV at the end of the story? Is it awkward?
- What did you think about the leaf being able to notice things or being somewhat portrayed as having feelings like a human?
- In the second to last paragraph, do you think my example about texting and driving is too off topic?
- What do you think are the top 3 words used by teens today? Would you agree on the words I chose?
- Do you think the two short stories connected well with the main idea of the first 3 paragraphs?
- Did I maintain Holden’s voice throughout the story?
- What difference would it make if I had names for the characters?
The responses to these kinds of questions generate thoughtful revisions, all while keeping the writer in control of his work.
If you experience frustration with peer editing sessions that are somewhere between unproductive and hostile, please know you’re not alone. The learning that is possible from this activity is valuable, but it can be difficult to bring to light because of the inherent social factors. I hope these suggesticisms are useful to you and your students.
Your comments and perspectives are always welcome here. Thank you for reading.