No Fear Peer Feedback

I forget that students interact with each other (or don’t) outside of my classroom.  That seems ignorant, I know, but it’s a kind of cognitive bias that seeps into my consciousness every so often.  I see students in my room, acting generally civil as they work and learn, and I assume that they all feel comfortable with each other.

And then…”tomorrow, bring a clean copy of your draft for peer feedback.”

Silence. Looks of trepidation. Uncomfortable glances around the room.

After witnessing scenes like the one above throughout the past few years, I reflected on the process of peer feedback I’ve implemented.  For me, it involves selecting small groups for the students, providing guiding questions for students to consider as they read; for the students, it means handing their paper over to classmates they may or may not be friends with, and getting the paper back with comments written by those students.

As a student, I wouldn’t be too thrilled by that process.  It feels impersonal and intrusive.  The process could work better.

I decided on three main factors that were negatively affecting the process, but that I could also easily change:

Factor #1: Student writers receive their paper back with marks all over it. This is a defacement of their thinking.

How to address it: all peer feedback comments go on a separate piece of paper.  No red marks scribbled in the margins.  This encourages readers to write narrative-style comments, instead of the dreaded “awk” or “good vocab.”  Readers sign their names at the bottom of their comments.

Factor #2: Readers focus on elements of the writing selected by the teacher, instead of providing an authentic response to the writing.

How to address it: all comments are framed in terms of the reader’s reaction to the writing, and the readers cite specific moments in the text where applicable.

So something like, “You were really unclear in this essay, you should re-word it,” is unacceptable for this process. This is judgement and advice, not feedback.  The advice is vague and could be wrong, and the judgement feels rude.

A similar comment could be framed by the reader as, “I got lost in the middle of paragraph three” or “The sentence beginning with, ‘_______’ confused me.” Now, the writer gets an honest glimpse at what the reader’s reaction to the piece was, without the condescending directions imposed by the first type of comment.

Factor #3: At the end of the process, writers may be unsure of the next step. How do they use this bunch of words provided by others as a means to improve the writing?

How to address it: writers begin the process by noting their “intention” for the piece. This is a description of how they want the piece to effect the reader. It could be something like, “I want this piece to make the reader feel the sense of awe I felt when visiting the Grand Canyon, and I also want this piece to teach the reader about the geography about that area.”

After student writers receive their writing with a separate sheet filled with peer feedback comments, they have a specific standard to measure themselves against. They consider the comments of the readers, and notice if the readers reacted in the way that the writer intended them to react. If, using the example from above, a reader noted that, “This piece left me wondering how the writer actually felt about his trip to the Grand Canyon,” the writer knows that he must return to his piece and make some changes.

The results:

After trying this with a few classes, I noticed an improvement in engagement and the overall atmosphere of students during the peer feedback session. The quality of the reader comments was not at the level I believe they can be, but in the future, more modeling of the kind of comments that I think would be help writers may lead to an improvement in that area.  Students responded authentically to each other’s writing by explaining what the pieces taught them and how the writing affected them; most of the time, their comments matched the writer’s intentions for the piece.

So, while this was no educational miracle, it never hurts to put myself in the mind of a student in my classroom, and imagine what the experience is like. It’s important to consistently ask myself: is this an activity I’d find meaningful, relevant and comfortable doing?