Evaluating Writing Teaching Writing

Small-Group Writing Conferences for Better Feedback and Student Peer Review

Peer Review

By Steven J. Corbett

Almost everyone who teaches writing has an opinion about peer review and response. We’ve heard teachers bemoan how students just don’t take it seriously. We’ve struggled with trying to make it fit in an already over-loaded curriculum. Yet student peer review and response can become a writing teacher’s most promising pedagogy . . . if we approach it with the right attitude and a few helpful strategies and resources.

In an essay I wrote for Inside Higher Ed (IHE) back in 2010, I describe my method of conducting small-group student writing conferences as part of a comprehensive peer review and response practice. The following list briefly outlines how writing instructors across the disciplines can start using this method to provide more collaborative, synergistic, and useful feedback for student writers:

  1. Have students form peer “home groups” early in the term. I do this on the first or second day of class. I typically have students gravitate toward their own groups of three.
  2. Pre-select one or two assignments from your syllabus for student peer groups to develop through face-to-face feedback.
  3. When these student papers are due, have students sign up with their group mates for a forty-five minute to one hour-long conference with you. I require students to bring their papers on a flash drive to my office. When we meet, I simply pull up each student’s paper on my computer and offer my feedback verbally. Each paper (up to about 5 pages) takes about 15-20 minutes.
  4. Encourage students to take notes and/or to audio-record the session on their smart phone.

As I detail in the IHE article linked above, I believe this method offers students a much more fulfilling comparative feedback/assessment experience. It also offers students and me the chance to get to know each other a little better. Students frequently report back in their course evaluations how useful (finally!) they found the experience of peer review and response, including how these small-group conferences helped them to better understand and perform the acts with their group mates. In a way, these small-group conferences allow me to join the group as an important reader and responder, offering students a face-to-face model of the review and response process. I also use this process in lieu of grading stacks of essays—asking students to think through the overall tenor of my response and to revise in line with those comments. This puts students in the rhetorical driver’s seat in responding to my feedback.

If you’d like to hear more about how this feedback method fits into my expansive use of peer review and response in my writing courses, please see an earlier version of a short chapter forthcoming in the collection Peer Pressure, Peer Power: Theory and Practice in Peer Review and Response for the Writing Classroom. This brief article offers more information on the value of student peer review and response, as well as further details strategies for forming groups, training students, and how to assess the process.

With a little experimentation, and a lot of patience and persistence, peer review and response can go from “Uggh” to “Yea!” for our students and ourselves in writing-integrated courses.