Every writer needs a reader: Transforming peer review one class at a time

by Angela Glotfelter 

“Writing isn't a person locking themselves away for a year and then coming out with something amazing,” Luke Shackelford stresses. “It's something that necessitates some sort of social interaction in order for it to be done effectively.”

Shackelford is a Graduate Assistant Director at the Howe Center for Writing Excellence (HCWE), where part of his responsibilities include managing the Center’s pilot peer review facilitation program.

“I really believe in this program,” adds Mira Patel, a HCWE writing consultant who also works with Shackelford in the peer review facilitation program. She visits classes to teach students how to give each other worthwhile feedback on their writing. “I really believe,” she says, “that changing the way students interact with each other about writing from the ground up can make it so much easier for everybody.”

The way the peer review program works is this: Faculty members can request that a writing consultant from the HCWE visit their class to facilitate peer review. On the day of the peer review, the writing consultant comes to the class, gives a crash course to students on how to do good peer review, and then helps facilitate the actual peer review activity. Students exchange papers, sometimes with more than one person, and give each other feedback tailored to that assignment. Overall, the faculty and consultant work together to incorporate the peer review into the scaffold of an assignment at the faculty member’s desired time.

Quotation from text: I thought I just had to type up an essay and turn it in and then that was that

Something that isn’t always easy to do, Erica Edwards reminds me. Edwards is an Associate Professor in the Political Science Department. “As an instructor, I think figuring out which assignment you want to focus on and bring in the help for is challenging,” she says with a laugh. For the past two semesters, she has partnered with Shackelford and Patel to incorporate peer review into a 200-level Political Science course she’s teaching.

As I sat down to interview Shackelford, Patel, and Edwards about their experiences with the peer review facilitation program, two things became clear: Dynamic peer review practice is benefiting Miami’s students, and this peer review program is transforming student and teacher attitudes towards giving feedback on writing.

How dynamic peer review practice is benefiting Miami’s students

What does good peer review look like? This is a question that Shackelford and Patel have been asking. They stress that what they’re doing with peer review is entirely new. In other words, this isn’t your father’s peer review.

To help teach students how to provide each other with good feedback, they’re taking best practices from writing center peer consultations and teaching other students how to apply the same strategies when working with their peers in a classroom setting.

Upon training to become a writing consultant, Patel’s ideas about how writing works dramatically changed. Now, she wants to spread the ideas she encountered by incorporating consulting strategies into peer review. “Why is writing never a conversation?” Patel asks eagerly. “Training to be a writing center consultant was my first introduction to writing as a conversation and as a learning tool. I thought I just had to type up an essay and turn it in and then that was that. When I saw the opportunity to actually incorporate best practices for writing center consulting in classrooms, I thought it would be so cool if every professor at Miami could adopt strategies like these.”

Shackelford and Edwards also see peer review benefiting students in the long run. The practice exemplifies the belief that writing is inherently social. In other words, every writer needs a reader.

“It's not just what you yourself get out of it,” says Edwards, “but you also are exposed to lots of different writing styles. Being able to think about and critique those different writing styles is a valuable tool. The more that we have students doing peer review, not just in my 200-level class, but in other classes—the more they're exposed to writing in different contexts and the better they can get at it. Writing to different audiences is a skill that's going to be useful, regardless of what they go on to do.”

Shackelford nods, agreeing. “Peer review is a way to understand writing not just as something you do on your own, but as something that you can work with others to achieve. It's a collaborative project. And I think it's very important in today's day and age, where you're going to be working collaboratively with a lot of people to do a lot of things.”

Transforming attitudes toward peer review practice

The peer review facilitation program is also transforming student and teacher perceptions about how writing works. Part of that is breaking down assumptions about how good peer review actually happens.

Quotation from text: Peer review is a way to understand writing not just as something you do on your own, but as something that you can work with others to achieve. It's a collaborative project.

“A lot of faculty just assume that students know how to provide appropriate peer review comments,” says Shackelford, “and when that doesn't happen, they're confused.” Writing consultants in the HCWE are, in essence, trained in advanced peer review strategies, “so why not take that training methodology and apply it to provide a crash course for students prior to an actual peer review session?”

One of the things that Edwards likes about the peer review facilitation is that it gives her students an opportunity to talk openly about revising and improving their writing. “It teaches them that it's okay to be critical. The point of a peer review is not just to say, 'It's all great!' because that's not a helpful peer review. To a certain extent, students feel a little bit vulnerable with it, but I think when they engage in it, they open up to it.”

Patel is currently an undergraduate student herself. She believes student attitudes towards peer review have sometimes been shaped by prior experiences that were unproductive or unhelpful.

“As a student,” she explains, “I've been in classes where peer review was just typing notes on a Canvas document and not even interacting with others. For some people, peer review is merely an exchange of papers, so when they see, 'peer review,' on the calendar, they say, 'Oh, this is just kind of a free day for me.’ Part of our job is transforming that assumption and making peer review more productive.”

When she comes into a classroom to facilitate a peer review session, she tries to gauge how students are responding to what she’s saying. “You just have to feel the room and see who's really engaging and who's not and for what reasons. Is it that we're doing something wrong? Or is it because they just need some extra time to buy into this?”

This kind of flexibility has become important for Shackelford and the consultants who work in the peer review facilitation program. Every class they visit has different needs.

“You have to have adaptability, I think,” reflects Patel, “because each class is different. This isn't a one-size-fits-all kind of thing. Talking with the instructor beforehand, feeling the room, and knowing the assignment when you come in really help cater to each class.”

Looking ahead

Shackelford, Patel, and Edwards all have plans to continue participating in the peer review facilitation program.

Quotation from the text: I had very positive feedback last semester... all the classes I teach are writing enhancement classes, so I plan on continuing to use it.

Shackelford and Patel are currently conducting research on the program to gather empirical data on what makes an effective peer review. “I'm in the middle of getting an IRB finished up so we can do an in-depth look at what's effective and what isn't,” says Shackelford. “That's the type of research we're doing.”

In the future, Edwards plans on incorporating peer review into her courses. “I had very positive feedback last semester after Luke and Mira helped facilitate peer review,” she says, “and all the classes I teach are writing enhancement classes, so I plan on continuing to use it.”  

Edwards is also collaborating with Shackelford to develop a method of conducting peer review in an online course she’s teaching. “There will be a peer review element to the online course,” she explains, “but obviously it will look a little bit different.” Together, they’re pushing the boundaries of what peer review can look like, even toying around with the idea of making videos that could be used by other Miami faculty who include writing in their online courses.

Patel is getting busy as she heads into her senior year, but she’s committed to the program. “It's a great experience,” she says with a smile. “I would do it every semester. It's my senior year next year, but I'll do it again.”

The Howe Center for Writing Excellence is currently piloting in-class peer review assistance for faculty members who have completed the Howe Faculty Writing Fellows Program. Learn more about the Writing Fellows Program or contact Dr. Elizabeth Wardle (wardleea@MiamiOH.edu), the HCWE Director, for more information.