Peer Groups and Student Writing
The process of peer editing academic papers makes students stronger writers and improves the quality of the final texts produced. Students receive substantive feedback on their work, encounter other styles of writing, and get a chance to think about their own writing. Here are some basic guidelines for organizing peer groups in your class. These are general suggestions that can be adapted to meet the needs of your particular course.
Assign student partnerships and have students exchange paper drafts
While students might prefer to select their own partners, determining who will work with whom is integral to the success of peer group editing. I create groups of three to four students with a range of strengths on several criteria—grasp of course materials, outspokenness in section, and comfort with English-language academic writing. Students are required to read their partners' papers before the next section, and to come prepared with written comments about each paper's content and structure. I ask students to comment throughout the text as well as in several paragraphs at the paper's end.
Simply asking students to "read" and "comment" will not necessarily produce meaningful commentary on papers. Prepare a handout with guidelines for students to follow in crafting their comments, and suggest how to offer constructive criticism. Be as transparent as possible about why you are having students do this activity.
Students read their own work out loud to the peer group
Few students take the time on their own to read their papers aloud. Ask the authors to chose a short selection—approximately one page—a section they feel is unclear, paragraphs where they are working out key ideas, or simply the beginning. It doesn't take more than a few lines before authors recognize aspects of their paper that need revision that they might not have noticed from just reading silently.
Having read the paper, their peers can act as a sounding-board and ask questions (i.e., "What do you mean by...?" or "I think you are saying....What are you trying to say?").
Allow time for the peer editors to discuss their comments, and for authors to ask questions or seek clarification. They can use this as an opportunity to reflect on different styles of writing, and how to effectively convey complex ideas from the course. During this time, you can circulate through groups and talk with students to keep them focused on their papers, to ask them questions, and to provide quick feedback.
Depending on group sizes and the lengths of the selections read aloud, peer editing activities typically take between one and a half and two hours in class.
Students revise their papers
Students make revisions for the final draft based on the comments received, and what they hear in reading their own papers aloud. If a student still has unresolved concerns or questions, you can meet individually in office hours.
Require students to submit their peer-edited paper with the final draft. You can review the editorial comments to see how students were reading others' papers, and to determine how much a student revised between the rough draft and final paper.
I also ask students to write a short reflection piece (fewer than two hundred words) on the peer editing process. I ask students to think about what this taught them about their own writing, about their experiences editing the work of another. This feedback is invaluable for students, and provides you with potential suggestions on how to reconfigure the exercise in the future.
Chris Wetzel is a doctoral student in Sociology and a recipient of the Outstanding Graduate Student Instructor award.
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