Methods of Response: Guided Peer Response Activities
It’s not uncommon for teachers to put students into peer workshop groups without any directions for what to focus on during peer response sessions, and then to leave students to make their own choices.* While this might work for more experienced writers, we can optimize the benefit of peer response sessions by having students better focus on specific writing objectives that fit an assignment or the writing skills currently being taught. Without direction from the teacher, peer response workshops may not be productive if what students choose to do as response is not a good fit for the activity objectives. For instance, many students may choose to proofread or copy edit only. Or they might choose some other strategy that they are most comfortable with because it is easiest to them.
Peer Review Worksheets
One way to guide peer review is to prepare worksheets that ask students specific questions about the text. For instance, the worksheet can focus on things like
- Ask students to point out topic sentences.
- Have them state the main point of the paper.
- Have them outline the paper.
- Discuss voice and other audience appropriateness issues.
- Point out where they didn’t understand something
- Count the number of sources and evaluate their appropriateness.
Once the students complete the worksheet, they can give it to the writer and discuss the details.
An added benefit of peer response worksheets is that the work is easily assessable for credit by the teacher. Students could complete the worksheet on a computer and send it to their peers. Then the student would have a digital copy to submit as part of their paper assignment portfolio. The teacher can easily check to see if the peer response work was completed during final grading.
I Dont Know What to Say: Say Back What You Hear
Many students really struggle with what to say in giving feedback. It can be a combination of wanting the writer to like them and not wanting to offend the writer, or a feeling of inability of being able to tell the writer how to improve the paper. The latter makes a lot of sense. When a student is confronted by a piece of writing much better than their ability to write, they could very easily feel that they have nothing to offer the writer.
The “Say Back” method of response shows students that they always have something to say about a text. In peer response groups,
- Have the author read her paper out loud.
- Then, after reading a paragraph or short section, stop. The other students then “say back” what they heard in the writing. The responders are not focused on how to fix it; they just explain “This is what I think you meant,” “This is what the writing made me think about,” and/or “This is what I expect to come next.”
- Students then discuss what they have said before moving on in the paper to the next section.
This can be valuable feedback for writers because it tells them how readers interpret their writing, and it can stimulate conversation from peer response group members that are not very talkative on their own.
Start with an Outline
Another method is to have students create outlines of other student’s papers. Instruct the students to number each paragraph on the draft as they go. On a separate piece of paper, have students write a sentence which says what they felt was the main point of each paragraph using the numbering system. If a paragraph is very long and seems to have more than one main point (i.e. the paragraph should be broken up), invite students to put more than one number next to the paragraph and express the different main points in the outline.
Outlining also helps students to gain a macro view of the paper. This can allow them to provide better feedback that they might not have been able to on their own without this overview the outline provides. For instance, after outlining, ask students to look at the outline they have created and see if perhaps a different order (structure) for the paper might have worked better. Or ask them to let the writer know any major points or arguments that seem to be missing when they look at the outline, or any paragraphs that are not a good fit (off topic) for the paper.
Meta-Reflective Writing and Response
Writing theorists know that having students reflect on their writing and revising process is a useful learning tool. With peer response, it can be helpful to have students do reflection before and/or after the response session:
- After completing their draft, have students reflect on where they are in the process (e.g., still generating ideas, ready for proofreading, going back to do further research), any future plans for revision, and any concerns about how to move forward. The writer can include this as a note at the end of their draft. Have the peer group members read the note before reading the draft so that they are better able to give the reader contextualized feedback that addresses the writer’s needs. Even if you don’t have students do this reflection outside of class, it can still be helpful to have each writer do this for a minute verbally in peer response groups before the other students read and respond to their papers.
- After a peer response activity, have students write about the feedback they received, any insights their experience of giving response and looking at the drafts of others (not their own) gave them for their own writing, and current plans for revision. The latter can be very useful. By the time students get around to revising their draft, many will have forgotten some of the feedback from workshopping papers or the revision strategies that they thought of earlier.
One method for peer response activities is to have students negotiate with the teacher the focus for the feedback session prior to getting into groups.
Ask students to think about where everyone is in the writing process, and thus whether or not they need feedback on more global concerns—overall paper focus, audience address, structure (organization), argument development, etc.—or local concerns, such as sentence fluency, error correction, or sentence transition. Then ask students what the priorities should be for the peer response session. Write on the board the things that students come up with that are a good fit for your current course objectives (remember that you have a veto as the teacher if a suggestion is not good). And of course include things that students don’t think about that might help them with the learning objectives of the assignment. This discussion is also an opportunity to refresh student memories on recent lessons on writing strategies covered in the course.
Note: If the goal of the particular response session is to focus strictly on global concerns of the paper (e.g., overall structure, argument development, general focus) instead of sentence level issues, it can often be helpful to write on the board not to do proofreading or copy editing. Let students know that those activities are better left for later in the writing process after the text is more fully developed and the main ideas and content are stable from revision. Otherwise, some students may devote most of their attention to proofreading or sentence level revising, for often it is what they are most comfortable doing.
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