Peer reviewing: “It’s not about you; it’s about me.”

by Anuradha Ramanujan & Coleen Angove


A rather indiscreet Facebook message from a while ago sowed the seed of this investigation into effective peer reviewing. A student taking an Ideas and Exposition module (IEM) bemoaned his frustration at a recent peer review experience, expressing dismissiveness at his peer reviewer’s “obtuseness,” and called peer review a waste of time. Some colleagues casually discussed how this situation could be addressed by avoiding a mismatch of peers.  However, after discussions and consulting literature on peer review as pedagogical practice, we realised that we should have responded differently to this situation.

The literature confirms that peer review is very useful (Mulder, Pearce, & Baik, 2014; Baker, 2016).  However, as academics, we need to communicate this to our students, convince them that peer review benefits them, and address their concerns. Here, we present the steps we have taken to address doubts about the usefulness of peer review in IEM. We keep in mind the disgruntled student, and imagine how we could have ensured that he saw the benefits of peer review.


Step 1: Explain the role of peer review throughout academe

Every academic publication benefits from advice and input from academic peers. On different occasions, we used early drafts of our own work to illustrate how all writing improves with revision directed by peer feedback. However, for some students this might not seem very relevant, because they distinguish between professional academics and themselves, and feel inadequate about taking responsibility for a peer’s work. Thus, step 2 is important.


Step 2: Address anxieties and objections

(a) To the misgiving in “I don’t want to give wrong advice,” we suggest that rather than see yourself labeled as “peer reviewer,” focus on being a “reader.” The function of the reviewer is to be an intelligent reader, and subsequently “collaborator” (Rollinson, 2005). Rollinson identifies “highly complex socio-cognitive interactions involving arguing, explaining, clarifying, and justifying” (2005, p. 25) which constitute the collaboration that is implicit in peer reviewing. This high level of interaction may begin with a request for clarification on what the “reader” does not understand. Through drawing attention to a potential failure in communication, a discussion relating to ideas and how those ideas have been effectively communicated ensues.

Rather than focusing on a sense of inadequacy to offer the “right” advice, we encourage students to focus on the opportunity to test ideas in a safe space, amongst peers, before presenting them to the lecturer.

(b) “It’s not my job to work through drafts. It’s the teacher’s.” This objection is often rooted in students’ need for affirmation from the lecturer and scepticism toward a peer’s advice. The focus, however, should be less on whether a peer is providing useful advice, and more on whether the writer has (through the peer review experience) become better equipped to recognise the extent to which her own writing has met the assignment criteria.  Peer review should contribute toward the growing independence of the writer, and not be seen as the (begrudging) transference of dependence from the lecturer to a peer. Rollinson cites examples of how students tend to accept lecturer feedback unquestioningly, whereas they engage more actively in defending or explaining their choices to their peers, and therefore end up taking greater responsibility for their work (2005, p. 25).

In IEM there is the additional reassurance that a peer review is always followed by a consultation with the lecturer, which takes some pressure off the peer reviewer. We advise students to see this as an opportunity to defend their interpretation or phrasing, and take responsibility for their writing.

(c) “I don’t want to hurt my peer’s feelings”. Carefully worded peer review sheets can alleviate anxiety about passing judgment on a peer’s work. As teachers, we should steer clear of questions that either prompt yes/no responses or demand a qualitative ‘good or bad’ response. Refrain from putting pressure on the reviewer to judge, for example, whether a peer has written a good thesis statement. Phrase the instruction in a way that guides the student to identify whether a peer has met the expectations, based on the criteria for a thesis statement. Questions on reviewing the thesis statement should focus on whether it is ‘debatable’ or contains a ‘because’ clause for instance, not whether it is a ‘good’ thesis statement. The latter carries with it a value judgment, absent in the former phrasing. One could even ask a reviewer to “Rewrite the thesis statement in your own words to explain what you understand the focus and purpose of the paper to be. Confirm with your peer whether this is what s/he intended.” Modeling some aspect of the activity using a short essay or paragraph before the peer review session may also help to set ground rules and clarify expectations.

(d) “I find the process tedious and time-consuming.” This may not be a concern once students are convinced of the purpose and usefulness of peer review. However, providing clear guidelines and breaking up the task into short, manageable exercises that focus on specific aspects of the writing may help. These aspects would relate to the learning outcomes associated with each assignment. So, in IEM, where each writing assignment builds on the previous one in terms of complexity, peer review for initial assignments like the ‘reflective summary’ and ‘annotated bibliography’ could focus on clarity and concision in language use. Sessions for the final paper, however, could emphasize higher-order writing skills such as argumentation, organization of ideas into paragraphs, the rhetorical functions of different sections of the text, etc.

(e) “My peer writes badly and doesn’t understand my argument. This is such a waste of time.” Finally, draw students’ attention to research findings that show that reading a fellow student’s work may offer new ideas and perspectives on the topic, an appreciation for clarity of expression and awareness of audience that can lead to reflection and revision of one’s own writing (Cho & Cho, as cited in Nicol, Thomson, & Breslin, 2014).  In giving feedback, therefore, students become more critical and self-aware readers of their own work. By making students take ownership of their own work, peer review helps them become more “self-reliant writers” (Rollinson, 2005, p. 29). This is arguably the best reason for engaging in peer review.



Baker, K.M. (2016). Peer review as a strategy for improving students’ writing process.  Active learning in higher education, 17(3): 179-192.

Mulder, R.A., Pearce, J.M., and Baik, C. (2014). Peer review in higher education: student perceptions before and after participation.  Active learning in higher education, 15(2): 157-171.

Nicol, D, Thomson A & Breslin, C. (2014). Rethinking feedback practices in higher education: a peer review perspective. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 39(1): 102-122.

Rollinson, P. Using peer feedback in the ESL writing class. (2005). ELT Journal, 59(1): 23-30.


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