Peer Review vs. Peer Response (vs. Peer Editing)

As academics, we are familiar with peer review as part of the academic publishing process where we are asked to evaluate a piece of writing for suitability for publication.* We also use peer review to evaluate performance in other instances, such as tenure and promotion review.

Thus for us, peer review is often associated with judging another’s work. In the teaching of writing, it can be counterproductive for students to assess another person’s performance like a teacher or in the ways that we do as peer reviewers of each other. Students often need to be discouraged from seeing their job as fixing or judging the other writer’s work like a teacher. The better goal is often to position the work as a reader’s response where the student is asked to give authentic reactions: “Here is what I hear, understand, or see.” “Here are suggestions you might consider.” Once receiving that feedback, the writer’s job, then, is to evaluate whether or not to address the reader’s response. Students need to understand how this is different from receiving feedback from the teacher who has professional experience and is guiding the student's revision process. While students have to evaluate and choose whether to address the feedback of another student, student writers are obligated to address the teacher’s concerns expressed in any feedback (something they often have to be reminded of).

Clearly defining the feedback they will give as “peer response,” explaining what that means, and avoiding the terminology “peer review,” can take some of the pressure off of students who are uncomfortable with judging their peers, and it can clarify their task in giving feedback. Indeed, peer response more accurately describes what we want students to do than another common term for this activity, “peer editing.” Peer editing can give the impression to students that their job is to simply copyedit and proofread only.

Writing theorists also know that student writers are often hesitant to offer negative criticism because of how it might be perceived by their fellow students. Students want to be liked by their classmates, and they are sensitive to the fact that other student writers often don’t like to have their writing criticized. We have to work to get them past that. By discussing their role in peer response work, and letting them know that they are not being asked to act as teachers, students will often end up being more productive at peer response. Moreover, let students know that peer response work is not just an activity to receive help on their paper. By thinking about what they learn from the writing of others, students can come to understand that getting good feedback is not the only objective of the activity.

Importance of Descriptive, Detailed Response

Unfortunately, if left to their own processes for giving feedback, many students will choose to proofread only (which may not be appropriate for the learning objectives of the response activity). Or they may choose to only express feedback in very simple one or two word phrases.

The latter can be a result of having received such feedback from teachers on papers in the past. However, we know that a vague comment like “unclear” comment next to a sentence—whether feedback given by a teacher or a student—is often unclear itself to the writer. It could be referring to the literal meaning of the sentence, the sentence’s logical order transition in the paragraph, how the evidence in the sentence ties to the current (local) argument, its relevance to the paper’s (global) focus, the meaning of a particular term in the sentence, etc. Similarly, comments like “Good” or “Needs improvement” lack the context necessary for student writers to interpret the feedback and apply it.  

Students may also gravitate toward simple comments without encouragement to write more detailed response because it’s easier for them. Thinking about why one “likes” a particular passage in a paper, and expressing why, is more work than simply applying a one or two word phrase. When students find this difficult, experience with expressing such simple feedback in more complex terms requires deeper reflection about writing which can be an important learning process.

So encourage students to supply the writer with context by stating “why.” Not just “This is good,” but “This is good because of the way that you tied this idea back to the main thesis of the paper.”

Role of Praise and Negative Criticism in Peer Response

As already mentioned above, some students are hesitant to provide negative feedback because they value their relationships with their peers and want to be liked. On the other hand, because students have received feedback on papers from teachers which is largely focused on what needs to be addressed in revision or why a paper received the grade that it did, other students will tend to adopt this teacher’s feedback model and provide predominantly negative feedback.

Therefore, it can be important to discuss with students the need for providing both praise and negative feedback together. Explain that peer response is a constructive criticism process, that negative feedback only tears down the text, and that they need to offer positive feedback to build it back up. Let students know that writers need to know what they are doing well so that they can build upon the strengths of their paper, or, at the very least, make sure not to eliminate something during revision that is working well. Tell them that their peers will be more receptive of negative criticism if they also provide some positive comments.

At the same time, explain to students that writers also need to receive constructive negative criticism so that they can improve their writing. As part of class discussion, ask them to talk about if they’ve ever had a peer response workshop experience where all of the feedback was good, and ask them to comment on how much that helped them with revision. Finally, explain to students that they can be diplomatic when providing negative criticism. Instead of beginning with statements like “This is wrong” or “This sucks,” say “This could be improved by . . .” or “It would work better for me if . . .”

Next: Methods of Response: Guided Peer Response Activities

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Page last modified June 18, 2014