Facilitating Effective Peer Response

As a writer and scholar yourself, you probably know firsthand that feedback from informed peers is invaluable in clarifying and extending a piece of writing. Similarly, students can benefit from peer feedback, especially when that feedback is guided by the instructor and the writer’s own concerns. Below, we provide a map of our overall recommendations on facilitating effective peer response in any class. We can’t emphasize enough the importance of spending time to plan the peer response and to prepare students with prompts and tools for providing useful feedback.

We have also included links to additional materials if you want more detailed information. And if you’re teaching in an online environment, our resource “Facilitating Effective Online Peer Response” has additional strategies and practices for that specific context, although many of the same principles and practices apply in either setting. If you still have questions, please contact a member of the HCWE for support.

Research-based Principles of Effective Peer Response

The field of writing studies has developed a body of research and theory that guides all our practices towards writers and writing, and peer response has been a staple of writing classes for decades. Guiding principles pertinent to peer response include the following:

Writing and learning are social. Writers and readers benefit by sharing and talking about drafts with others. Writers learn how others interpret their writing and can gain insights into how others make meaning of a text; readers can benefit by seeing how other writers have approached the assignment and from discussing writing processes.

Writers and readers are always working to construct meaning. All writers and readers are constantly negotiating language to construct meaning. Discussing a draft with a reader can help both the writer and reader clarify and extend meaning.

All writers have more to learn and can benefit from practice, feedback, and revision. Writing is a skill that can be developed across time and in different contexts. Consider the types of feedback you receive on your academic work--at all stages, from considering ideas to final proofreading--and how often you revise before publishing. Consider giving similar opportunities to students as they work on a major project.

Reflection and metacognition are important parts of improving as a writer, and all writers benefit by monitoring their own learning, progress, and struggles. Receiving formative feedback and then reflecting and self-assessing are important parts of improving as a writer. These activities are therefore an important part of the peer response process and can be incorporated into your assignments as explained below.

Best Practices for Effective Peer Response Activities

If you want students to take the peer response process seriously, provide informed and constructive feedback to others, and productively use the feedback they’ve received, it’s important to carefully plan the peer response experience and then prepare students to understand the benefits as well as your expectations.

Planning Peer Response (Logistics)

  1. Decide “where” you want peer response to take place. Peer response can be conducted in-person during a class period or assigned as homework, either with a video chat or written responses only. The benefits of including peer response in class are that you will be there to provide guidance and answer questions, and it also allows the writer and peer to discuss the writing in the moment. On the other hand, students say that doing peer feedback as homework gives them more time to craft and provide the feedback, and it also takes up less of your class time. Because writing and peer response are social activities, interaction and conversation between peer and writer are critical components. So if assigning peer response as homework, provide some time (10-15 minutes) in the next class period for writers and readers to discuss the feedback, or have them discuss via video chat outside class.
  2. Use platforms that are already part of your class. If you’re doing in-person peer response in class, you can certainly ask students to bring printed copies of their drafts to class. But to alleviate headaches from printer issues or simply forgetting, consider using digital versions of their writing. Canvas and Google Docs are both useful digital tools for facilitating peer response either as an in-class activity or as a homework assignment outside class.

    With Google Docs, you could set up folders for students to upload their drafts; they can share their documents with each other and add their responses using the comments feature.

    Using Canvas, though, may be a better option for some because it’s built into your course already. Here are some helpful guides:

    1. Faculty Canvas Guide for Creating a Peer Response Assignment
    2. Student Canvas Guide: How do I know if I have a Peer Response Assignment?
    3. Student Canvas Guide: How do I submit a peer response to an assignment?
    4. Student Canvas Guide: Where can I find my peers’ feedback for reviewed assignments?

    Whichever platform you choose, be sure you walk through it with your students beforehand so they understand how to use it, and be prepared to help students troubleshoot if this is your first time using these platforms for peer feedback.

  3. Make sure each student receives at least two responses to their work. It's helpful for students to get a variety of perspectives and suggestions, as well as to learn how to provide effective feedback themselves to a variety of peers. Students also learn by reading and thinking about how others approach the same assignment.

Preparing Students for Peer Response

  1. Discuss the importance of peer response with your students in advance. Remind students that reading peers’ work and receiving peers’ responses can help clarify assignment expectations, reveal how others interpret one’s own work, and prompt new ideas for revision. You might watch this video, Feedback and Peer Review, for some ideas and language to use, and/or assign it to your students to view. This short video from MIT, No One Writes Alone -- A Guide for Students, explains the benefits of peer response from the student’s perspective and could be something you assign to your class. (Although the video shows peer response in a face-to-face classroom, the purpose and benefits of the activity, whether done in-person or outside of class as homework, come across strongly.)
  2. Be clear about what stage of writing you expect students’ projects to be in when they exchange papers, and the types of revision you expect after peer response. For example: If students are submitting a partial or earlier draft of an assignment, tell students that it’s okay if the draft isn’t polished and that editing mechanical errors is not the goal of the activity. Instead, they should work on clarifying their ideas.
  3. Clarify for students how peer response will be graded and by what criteria. Providing credit for each part of the peer response process shows students that you value it, and they are more likely to do so as well. We recommend treating peer responses as low stakes assignments that facilitate learning. They should count towards the assignment grade or final grade in some way, and we recommend they be evaluated for their adherence to your peer response guidelines, their specificity, and the engagement they show with peers’ intentions and ideas.
  4. Give clear guidelines regarding what you want students to look for and respond to in each other’s drafts. Students provide more substantial feedback when they have clear guidance on what to look for; without this, they often default to surface errors or no feedback. Some faculty provide specific questions for students to answer in the margins where appropriate, while others ask students to write a few paragraphs of response to an instructor provided prompt.

    Tie these guidelines to your assignment outcomes (review the assignment prompt, rubric, etc. for ideas and consistency) and consider the stage of writing. For example: Do you want students to spend time making editorial suggestions (probably most helpful with final drafts) or responding to the paper’s larger ideas (more helpful for early drafts)? What are the main features of this assignment you want students to focus on as they revise (a clear thesis that is carried throughout the text? strong use of evidence to support the thesis? detailed analysis? organizational structure? signposting? etc.) If you use a rubric, consider providing it to focus students’ responses or turn your rubric (or the the most pertinent parts) into questions for students to identify and address in their feedback.

  5. Tell students an appropriate amount of time to spend on feedback. Tell students how long you expect them to spend on this activity. Giving a time frame often works better than a word count: depending on the length of the paper, you might say “you should spend half an hour writing a response to each paper” or “you should spend 10 minutes writing a response to each paper.” Remember to take into account the expected length of the drafts and the level of feedback you are looking for; also be aware that students are likely to take more time to complete this activity than you might.
  6. Make peer response a 2-way conversation: Have student writers tell their peer respondents their main concerns and questions about their drafts before exchanging papers. Ask writers to identify 2-3 main areas of concern that they’d like their peer respondent to especially pay attention to when reading their work (such as, transitions between main arguments, use of evidence, etc.). See “Helping Writers Identify Their Goals for the Peer Response Process” for an example prompt for students. Students can discuss these goals in-person and/or writers can put these concerns at the top of their paper or in a “Dear Reader” memo. (Be sure to provide some credit for the Dear Reader memo.)
  7. Discuss with students how to frame their responses in constructive ways. Remind students to use a respectful tone and offer praise in addition to constructive criticism. You can also help students go beyond surface-level comments like “this is great” or “this is confusing” by encouraging them to write comments that are grounded in their understanding of the assignment and their response as a reader of the text. Encourage specificity: they should state not only that they got lost somewhere but also why they think they got lost and offer suggestions that would help. Comments like, “I got lost here when the topic changed abruptly. A transition to this idea would help. How does what came before relate to this new idea?” are more helpful for prompting revision than “This lost me.”

    This video from the University of Minnesota, Peer Review: Commenting Strategies, provides examples of constructive feedback and could be useful for students to view prior to the peer response. Another model is Beth Hewett’s “What, Why, How, Do” approach for structuring comments; that is, explain what the problem is, why it caused a problem for you as a reader, suggestions for how to address it, and optionally, encouragement to make the change (do) perhaps by including an explanation of how the change would help. It is also helpful to model feedback for students and to let them practice crafting feedback as an entire class on a volunteer’s paper or a paper from a prior class.

  8. Discuss with students how they should use their feedback from peer response. Students don’t always know how to use the feedback they receive. Asking students to summarize their feedback or make a revision plan for the assignment (either as a follow-up homework assignment, small group discussion board, etc.) can encourage engagement with feedback from their peers. You should also remind students that they are not obliged to incorporate all the suggestions their peers make; instead, their job is to use peer feedback to make informed choices about how to revise. See “Post-Peer Response Activities for Students” for more guidance.

Resources/Further Reading

Adler-Kassner, L., & Wardle, E., eds. (2015). Naming What We Know : threshold concepts of writing studies. Utah State University Press.

Finkenstaedt-Quinn, S. A., E. P. Snyder-White, M. C. Connor, A. Ruggles Gere, and G. V. Shultz. (2019). "Characterizing Peer Review Comments and Revision from a Writing-to-Learn Assignment Focused on Lewis Structures." Journal of Chemical Education 96 (2), 227-237. DOI: 10.1021/acs.jchemed.8b00711

Hewett, Beth L. (2015). The Online Writing Conference: A guide for teachers and tutorsBoston: Bedford/St. Martin’s.