by Coleen Angove
As a follow-up to our previous blog post on the importance of persuading students of the value of peer reviews and equipping them with the skills to participate effectively, this post offers a brief retrospect of student impressions of the experience. Peer reviews are built into writing classes as pedagogically effective learning tools (Nicol, Thomson and Breslin, 2014). In our first-year Ideas and Exposition (IEM 1) class this past semester, we experimented with different formats and then had students respond to two surveys, one at the beginning of the semester (after the first peer review), and one at the end. Surveys were anonymous and non-compulsory but students were encouraged to provide feedback on the different approaches used and assess the overall effectiveness of the activity in helping them improve their writing. Our commitment to the process of peer review was partly born of the decision to build assessed peer reviews into IEM 2 – part of a protracted process of drafting and revising the final research paper. We believe that establishing an understanding of the usefulness of the process, and equipping students with confidence and skills to peer review, offer a foundation for (the expectations in) IEM 2.
The term “peer review” is a give-away about the assumed power dynamic in this process. The intention is for peers to take responsibility for their own and others’ learning through a process that entails reading and commenting on one another’s work. Students need to be thoroughly prepared for the process (Pearce, Mulder and Baik, 2009) which we facilitated in three ways: motivating them through explaining the pedagogical justification for the process, providing guidelines and templates/worksheets for each assignment with questions based on our assessment criteria, and applying the guidelines to an old paper, thereby simulating the process. The first peer review was highly organized, compulsory and supervised by the lecturer. Students were expected to bring two copies of their draft to class and work in groups of three to offer both written and oral feedback. The second and third peer review sessions were voluntary. Students had to review one another’s drafts within a given period but could do so outside of class. They had the choice to meet face-to-face, exchange drafts by email or use Google Docs. Paper 2 drafts were to be reviewed after the student-teacher conference. For Paper 3, students were expected to come prepared to discuss peer feedback with the lecturer during the draft conference. Oral presentations of the final argument were scheduled before students started drafting their essays and were also aimed at soliciting peer feedback.
In order to monitor, motivate and get feedback from our students in the process of peer review, we created an IVLE survey after students completed guided in-class peer reviews on their first assignment. Our intention was ostensibly to get students’ impression of the value of the peer review process – both giving and receiving feedback. But, the survey was also intended to draw students’ attention to the process and to help them reflect on why they were reviewing their peers’ drafts. The gist of their comments indicates that our preparation worked, and students picked up on how they benefited not just from others’ comments, but from experiencing other papers and recognising their own strengths and failures through what they saw in their peers’ writing.
The average 60% response (this would be 72 out of 120 students) to the assignment 1 survey, taken straight after the peer-review, was overwhelmingly positive. Students claimed to have benefited in their content as well as expression from the challenges and advice of their peers. Many claimed understanding the article better and gaining new perspectives as a result of the peer review. They also acknowledged that giving feedback was as productive as receiving comments because it helped them reflect critically on their own ideas and rhetorical moves. This seems to bear out the potential for students to learn from one another, having been provided the appropriate tools by the teacher.
The following selections reflect on both role as reviewer and reviewed:
- “My peers offered several perspectives that I could not identify myself until I was told of them.”
- “Yes, I realised I could express my ideas more clearly and my reviewer was rather specific with how I could make improvements.”
- “Yes, I did benefit from the feedback given by my peers. They helped clarify any doubts I had about the article and helped to refine my claim. Furthermore, they also enabled me to look at the reading from a different perspective.”
- “Yes, it made me think more critically about the ideas and claims within the text and my own summary.”
- “Yes, it helped me to know which parts were repetitive and how they could be condensed further, as well as how I could develop my points further to ensure that they had more clarity. It also allowed me to see my own summary from the perspective of others which is important.”
Our second survey was run at the end of the semester and asked students to compare the different peer review processes and formats, which included the three papers as well as the presentation. The response rate was lower than for the first survey but respondents took care to offer interesting comments and suggestions. The low response may be attributed to the fact that the survey was conducted in the busy final week of the semester when students have many other projects and papers to complete. Ratings for the different approaches were varied but nearly all the respondents acknowledged the value of the presentation in helping them refine their topical focus and arguments prior to drafting their essays. This confirms the value of using presentations as an opportunity for formative peer and instructor feedback rather than as a culminating activity in which students share/showcase the work they have produced just before submitting their essays for evaluation:
- “I benefited greatly from the Oral Presentation component of the module during the preparation stage and also from the actual presentation itself. While preparing for the OP, I had to think about how I was going to assert my thesis and if it was logical. I also had to think about how I could best present my arguments and thought processes. This really aided me in planning and preparing for the writing of Paper 3.”
- “The peer reviewing I found most beneficial was the one concerning the oral presentation. It allowed us to test our ideas with our classmates before we started writing Paper 3, allowing us to easily avoid any mistakes we might have made.”
Using presentations in this way could also help address student concerns – occasionally expressed in class or in end-of-semester feedback – about peers’ lack of familiarity with the ideas and issues they are writing about in Paper 3. Students have the flexibility to choose their own topics for the final essay and are not always confident that their peers have the ‘content’ knowledge necessary to offer critical feedback on their drafts. The presentation gives students an opportunity to explain their topical focus, context and research problem/question to their peers in preparation for the draft review that is to follow. Their positive experience of presentation feedback is also related to students having to persuade an audience of peers of the validity of their research and, in the process, to think more critically about their own ideas and approaches.
Overall, the comments point to students’ having more faith in the authority of the lecturer than the peer. Even though students declare the usefulness of peer input on essay drafts, they claim to have benefited far more from the lecturer’s advice. This is also evident from suggestions (see below) that the peer review should precede the student-teacher conference and that an additional consultation for the final paper would have been useful. As suggested above, dependence on teacher input is especially high for Paper 3 because students work on different topics and are not always certain that their peers are informed enough about the sources and debates to offer sound feedback.
- “I learnt how to make my writing more coherent and received some good ideas during the feedback that I could adopt in my essays.”
- “Personally, I find that … peer reviewing in class restricts the student’s thinking in a number of ways. Sometimes, other factors such as fatigue or having the mindset that I ought to complete this exercise may limit the feedback provided by the peers. I did my friend’s peer review for Assignment 3 over the holidays and because I did it when I was free and for the benefit of learning from his essay, I felt my feedback was good and my overall effort in my own essay was improved. It may however, differ for others.”
- “Peer reviewing was helpful for idea bouncing & for the final check of the essays. However, I felt that having an additional consultation for paper 3 would have been more useful.”
- “I felt that the 2nd peer review (the one for Paper 2) was the least helpful because it came after the consults with the lecturer so we would likely have already corrected any major mistakes”.
- “Assignment 2 peer review and conference were helpful, though I depended more on conferencing. The most important was the in-class presentation … really helped clarify my idea and served as a testing bed for concepts. Peer review was not completely necessary as I automatically looked for friends to get some feedback from.”
These quotes also show that, although peer review for Papers 2 and 3 was voluntary and unsupervised, our initial preparation and the first in-class exercise were successful in helping students understand the value of peer reviewing. This was confirmed during final paper conferences when nearly everyone came prepared with questions and comments based on the peer feedback they had received on their drafts.
In conclusion, we will continue to prepare students to see the validity of peer reviews, and coach them in the process of giving and integrating peer feedback in writing papers. We believe that this played an important role in students’ positive assessment of the process overall (borne out by the literature in for example Pearce, Mulder and Baik, 2009). It also helps prepare students for IEM 2 where three assessed in-class peer reviews support the incremental development of the final paper. Furthermore, student feedback suggests that peer review is most effective with strong guidance from the lecturer either in class or during a follow-up conference. Students feel most comfortable receiving and giving peer reviews as a formative activity. This means that if peer review is not conducted under the supervision of the lecturer, allowing students to ask questions about peer feedback on the spot, it should be followed up by a student-teacher conference. This allows students to confirm the validity of comments and lowers their sense of risk in depending on a peer’s input. Finally, surveys to gather feedback are effective for their anonymity, although the downside is that we have less control over participation rates. This could be circumvented by asking students to complete surveys during class time. Other authors also use anonymous feedback to elicit impressions about peer reviewing from students (Nicol, Thomson, Breslin, 2014, p. 107), but follow up by focus group interviews, i.e. in-depth discussions with groups of two to six students. This is perhaps a useful next step to access the mechanics of exactly how students go about reviewing a text, and what they expect from a reviewer.
Nicol, D, Thomson, A. & Breslin, C (2014). Rethinking feedback practices in higher education: A peer review perspective, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 39 (1), 102-122, DOI: 10.1080/02602938.2013.795518
Pearce, J. Mulder, R. and Baik, C. (2009). Involving students in peer review. Case studies and practical strategies for university teaching [PDF file]. Guide produced by the Centre for the Study of Higher Education. University of Melbourne. Retrieved from https://melbourne-cshe.unimelb.edu.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0011/1761518/Student_Peer_Review.pdf
Ramanujan, A. & Angove, C. (2017, December 8). Peer Reviewing: “It’s not about you; it’s about me.” [CELC SoTL Blog]. Retrieved from https://blog.nus.edu.sg/macadresources/2017/12/08/peer-reviewing-its-not-about-you-its-about-me/