Is There a Good Way to Use Peer Review to Add Writing in the Classroom?

Posted on January 13th, 2014

Learn about simple research-based strategies to make peer review effective and efficient, transforming the learning in your classroom.

[Video Transcript] So is there a good way to use peer review to add more writing into the classroom? So this turns out to be a really big and useful question to be asking. We all know that we're gonna have to add more writing into our classrooms in order to achieve all these new standards that we're gonna be asked to achieve with our students. But it's gonna be just so hard to give feedback on all that writing, so your temptation will be to have relatively few assignments and students are just not gonna learn what they need to learn with those few writing opportunities.

And holding out in front of you is a possible solution: peer review, students giving each other feedback on all of those documents. And you're probably wondering, "How can I make that work? I've had some pretty bad experiences in the past with peer review." Maybe as a student, the feedback you received from your colleagues, your peers, was kind of shoddy; or maybe you tried it in your classroom and it turned out you saw that students really gave very short, positive, and unuseful feedback. So you're ready to write it off.

So a whole bunch of research suggests that peer review can really be done well to improve learning outcomes. So what's behind that? Well, one, is when students do a good job on peer review, they actually learn more from the feedback they get from their peers than they learn from the feedback that you provide. This actually can be very persuasive feedback, in part because students say it in a way that other students can understand, and in part by getting feedback on common problems from multiple individuals, it's just more persuasive: "Oh, that actually is a problem, and I really should fix it."

But that's really just a small part of the learning story here. A much bigger part of the learning story has to do from the giving side of feedback, learning by teaching. As students see problems in their peers, they're noticing a lot of things that are problems in their own papers that they just never saw before. It's just easier to see those problems in the writing of others. And the second part of that is in constructing possible solutions; they're now exploring ways of fixing these problems by helping others improve their work. And those things together create a really powerful learning situation. One lovely study showed that students who all semester long simply gave feedback to others—they didn't do any of their own writing—actually learned more than students who wrote all semester long and received feedback on their writing. Giving feedback to others is just a really powerful learning opportunity.

Now, there's a big "if" in what I said there: if students do a good job. And that's the part that you're kind of wondering about: how can I get my students to do a good job? And it turns out there's two simple strategies that you can do to get reliably good performance out of your students on the peer reviews that they give. The first is give them a rubric. As you're giving feedback to students, it helps you do a good job when you use a rubric. That same thing works for students. It helps them see what are the dimensions they should pay attention to and what are the levels that you're hoping that they get to in that. Now, you'll have to do a little bit of work in translating the rubrics that you normally use into ones that students will understand, but that's really work that's worth doing because then students will have a better understanding of the expectations that you have of them.

But that alone isn't gonna solve the problem. It's not just about understanding what you want them to do. The second part is making sure they will put the time into it. Peer review is a lot of effort, especially if you want them to think hard about the problems that they see in their peers' documents, and they're not all gonna do it out of the goodness of their heart. And a really simple strategy that we've tried and found to be quite powerful is adding a grading incentive. Have the authors give the reviewers ratings on how helpful those comments were—so all the comments they received, how much did that help them improve their writing, improve their documents—and you turn those ratings into a grade, and now the reviewers have a strong incentive to be constructive in those criticisms they provide. It's not just "here are real problems," but also "here's how we solve those problems." And that kind of feedback, constructive criticism, is exactly the kind of feedback that is the best learning opportunity for the reviewers.

So with those two simple solutions—clear rubrics and a grading incentive to take the task seriously—your students can reliably produce useful feedback and learn from that. And a number of the schools that we've been working with, who've been using some digital tools that we created to manage this process—so the documents flow into the digital tool, they get assigned to reviewers, it handles all the distribution of comments and of the helpfulness ratings—these schools have seen some really powerful results. Charter schools that normally would have students in the 50 percent or lower proficient range are now in the high 90 percent proficient—really astounding results. But not so astounding once you think about it. These students had opportunities to regularly write and receive feedback and give feedback on writing, and that is how they learned.

Christian Schunn

Christian Schunn is a Senior Scientist at the Learning Research and Development Center and a Professor of Psychology, Learning Sciences and Policy, and Intelligent Systems at the University of Pittsburgh. He is also a Fellow of AAAS and the American Psychological Association, and the current Chair of the Executive of the International Society for Design & Development in Education. He directs the SWoRD project, a web-based system for using peer-review to advance writing to learn and learning to write in K-12 and universities. He has also studied academic peer review, and peer exchange of teaching resources via the web.

More information on Christian Schunn.