One productive way that teachers can provide formative feedback for student writing is through the use of Peer Response Groups. In these groups, students read and respond to each other's drafts of a particular assignment and may, in the process, understand the assignment better.
Teachers can also help students organize their own peer response groups. These groups can be particularly helpful for graduate students who typically have few opportunities to process their writing in class or with the teacher.
In order for peer groups to be productive--whether time is given in class or they are set up outside of class--the teacher needs to train the students in critical reading by setting up specific procedures and objectives.
The University Writing Center has developed guidelines for organizing and participating in peer writing groups. These guidelines define three steps for organizing and participating in peer writing groups. First comes preparation before the initial meeting, which entails completing a short writing inventory and personal goals questionnaire to get group members thinking about both their writing needs and about goals for the group. The second step focuses on organization during the initial meeting. This involves getting to know one another, setting group goals, deciding on logistics (i.e. When and where will the group meet? How will the group communicate between meetings and exchange work? Who will submit pieces when? etc.). The third step offers parameters for the workshop, establishing section rules that allow the group to use its time well and to get the most out of each otherís comments.
Finally, the guidelines offer tips for responding to other peopleís writing (i.e. Critique the writing, not the writer, prioritize your comments, etc.) and questions to ponder while evaluating peer writing. These questions allow students to organize their comments into higher order and lower order concerns. Many times students focus on lower order concerns, such as grammar, punctuation, and spelling instead of spending time on more important concerns like clarity, organization, and sufficient evidence to back up a claim.
The guidelines are designed to be comprehensive, yet easy to follow so that students can work in groups without guidance from their instructors. With the use of peer writing groups, students are not only engaging in the work of their classmates, they are also learning much more about how to improve their own writing.
Students can be grouped in fours, with each student having a copy of the other students' drafts. The teacher could decide beforehand how the students are grouped or allow students to group themselves. All students in the group would focus on the same draft to address whatever the objectives the teacher (perhaps in collaboration with the students) thinks appropriate based on the assignment.
If the assignment had asked students to write an argument, objectives could include looking at the cogency and organization of the argument. Students could read each draft, addressing these questions:
Such questions allow the writer to guide the discussion of the response and force a more substantive response than 'yes' or 'no.' Students should be encouraged to write their responses on the draft before they discuss them so that the writer has access to them during revisions.
When students first work in groups on each other's writing, the teacher needs to monitor their progress to ensure that they stay on task answering the assigned questions and that each group member has an opportunity to receive feedback from the group. Students should be admonished not to get sidetracked on problems in sentence structure, spelling, and punctuation at this stage.
Setting up Peer Response Groups initially can seem time consuming and ensuring that such groups are productive requires patience on the part of the faculty member. Students may need time to practice taking turns in groupwork and in assimilating different perspectives. But over the course of the semester and a series of assignments, the critical reflective feedback that can be found in these groups can lead to better student writing and thinking.
We would like to thank these outside of class sources: The Writing Center of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
We would like to thank these in-class sources: Barbara Leigh Smith and Jean T. MacGregor, eds. Collaborative Learning: A Sourcebook for Higher Education (University Park, PA: NCPLTA, 1993); Karen Spear. Sharing Writing: Peer Response Groups in English Classes (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann/Boynton/Cook, 1988); Chris Anson, ed. Writing and Responses; Theory, Practice, and Research (Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 1989).
The following article originally appeared in our Teaching with Writing Across the Curriculum newsletter.