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creating effective peer response workshops

Pamela Flash

Peer collaboration has become a standard feature of writing pedagogy and is used successfully in writing and writing-enhanced courses across the curriculum. Peer response workshops (activities in which peers read and comment on each other's drafts or ideas) enable students to get quick, direct and timely feedback on their works-in-progress. These workshops may involve pairs of students or groups of up to five; might take place in class, outside class, or online; and can take anywhere from five minutes to over an hour.

In courses where the primary instructional focus is not on writing, instructors may question whether the benefits of peer collaboration are worth the time and planning it requires. The following is intended to help these instructors to make informed decisions about whether or not to include peer workshop activity in their courses.

what do student writers get from effectively run peer response workshops?

  • Opportunities to improve drafts before it's too late: When "big picture" responses are given early enough, before drafts are "set," student writers are more likely to make substantial changes in their drafts.  The questions and comments with which peers respond to initial ideas or sequences of ideas can prod a writer to deepen her/his approach to a subject, or to anticipate reader questions and therefore incorporate answers.  Later in the process, after student writers have struggled to complete an entire draft and set their ideas into a pattern of paragraphs, they may feel reticent about cutting or radically altering the work they consider almost finished.
  • An expanded idea of audience: Getting and giving feedback in a small group setting enables student writers to enlarge their concept of readership. Prior to this process, they may have written with the idea that their only reader was the course instructor.  Hearing comments from a variety of readers with diverse, and perhaps contradictory, reactions makes writers realize that they can't please everyone and that they're going to need to revisit their original ideas of content and purpose in order to make revision decisions. In this way, workshopping can settle the responsibility of the writing and revision process back onto the shoulders of the writer. This is different from simply "making corrections" suggested by an instructor.
  • Practice in reading for revision: Reading and subsequently talking constructively to a group of peer writers about writing can strengthen students' independent ability to read for revision.  In the peer workshop, students practice making constructive comments that are directed at writing rather than at writers, a distinction that can help depersonalize the process and increase the usefulness of feedback comments. In addition, student writers are often relieved to get away from their own drafts for a moment in order to see how others are handling the assignment.  Because they are not emotionally invested in a peer's work (work that they did not have to struggle to produce), student writers are often able to see and articulate big-picture revisions more clearly.  At the same time, they might be able to reflect on the applicability of these comments to their own drafts. 
  • Enhanced communication skills: Talking with peers about their work can strengthen students' ability to articulate specific reactions and suggestions. We know that negotiating a revision suggestion with our own colleagues can require a tricky balance of tact and clarity.  In successful student workshops, when it is made clear that "good job!" and "this is perfect as is!" will not be considered satisfactory remarks, students will develop speaking skills that they'll find useful in future scholarly and professional endeavors.
  • Increased confidence: Students frequently start a course confident in their assumption that writing done by classmates is much better than their own writing. When they see their peers' first drafts and realize that drafts don't have to be perfect and that those written by their peers look pretty similar to their own, they see that it is safe to loosen up and take risks in developing ideas. In addition, because they are able to act on their peers' feedback prior to turning a draft over to an instructor, they have had a chance to improve that second draft and are able to feel less vulnerable to "attack."

what do instructors get from effectively run peer response workshops?

  • Better writing and more time. Because students will have already been through one round of guided response and have subsequently revised their work, the drafts instructors see will, in all likelihood, be more thoroughly developed and organized. This will leave instructors free to address such higher-order issues as idea development and direction.
  • High levels of student engagement.  Whether the workshops last five minutes or fifty, excitement is generated by participating in an activity involving simultaneous conversations about writing.  Students hold each other accountable and are therefore offered incentives to invest themselves in their writing.
  • High evaluation ratings. Students recognize the value of effectively conducted peer workshops.

what are the potential drawbacks of using peer response workshops?

  • Successful peer workshops require careful pre-class planning. Inadequate structure and an absence of modeling can cause groups to flounder, wasting valuable class time.
  • Peer response requires class time. Whether instructors follow a five-minute pair model or a full-period group workshop model, class time is used to discuss the ways in which students are articulating course ideas in writing.
  • Peer workshops are student-centered; instructors need to temporarily remove themselves from the center of attention. In order to succeed, the workshopping process should allow groups or pairs to work independently.  Student writers will depend on each other to give useful responses if they are able to run their discussions without unnecessary intervention.  Otherwise, they will likely resent the group process and divest from it.
  • Some of our best students (like some of our best instructors) are convinced that they work most effectively on their own, and may resent having to collaborate. Generally speaking, the academic world rewards independent work. Often, strong students have been praised for their self-sufficiency, and feel capable of completing assignments on their own.  These students may initially feel, therefore, that the peer workshop is not going to offer them anything they couldn't do better on their own. Once they participate in detailed workshop activity, however, these students often recognize the value of receiving diverse responses to their work.
  • Participants may harbor negative attitudes based on prior experience with unsuccessful groups. Both students and instructors have war stories about badly run groups. These experiences can, understandably, interfere with students' willingness to re-engage in the process. Allowing students to voice their reservations early in the semester, when instructors give their rationale for using the technique, should help to clarify the ways in which upcoming workshops will differ from those of their past.

how do peer workshops work?

students:

invention stage:

1. Peers workshop topics/theses.
2. Students write and distribute first drafts.

revision stage:

3. Peers workshop 1st draft.
4. Students turn in 2nd draft with revision memo for instructor response.

editing/proofreading stage:

5. Peers focus on specific stylistic/grammatical/format issues.
6. Students turn in final draft with all other drafts and cover letter.

instructors:

in the planning stage:

Include description of draft systems and workshop procedures (with brief rationale) in syllabi.

  • When creating course schedules, block out time for major peer response workshop(s) and time to discuss, model, and assess the process.
  • Develop peer review guidelines (samples of items to include) for each assignment that is to involve peer response and put these guidelines into handouts and/or on overhead transparencies.
  • Organize groups.

in class:

Overview workshop procedure and rationale.

  • Go over response guidelines in class.
  • Model response using guidelines and examples of student drafts. (Instructors will need to obtain student releases for these.)
  • Provide opportunities for peer groups to debrief and assess.

how long does all this take?

in 5-10 minutes, any of the following can be discussed in pairs:

  • Topics
  • Theses, claims, or hypotheses
  • Audience, tone, or dissonance
  • Citation errors

in 20 minutes, any of the following can be discussed in groups of three or four:

  • Topics
  • Theses, claims, or hypotheses
  • Sequences of ideas
  • Target audiences and rationales
  • Supporting/countering arguments

in 20-40 minutes:

  • Conduct a "read-around" on a part or entire short assignment. (In a read-around, students bring two copies of a section of a draft—a proposal, a lead, an annotated bibliography, etc. All sets of copies are placed on a table so that participants can pick one up, write brief comments, return it to the table, and take another draft at their own pace.)

50+ minutes (with out-of-class reading)

  • Full essay peer-group conferences, using guidelines.

what will make peer response workshops fail?

  • No response guidelines are provided. Peer response groups do not work automatically. If specific focus points are not provided in advance, students will likely feel that they are being asked to comment on how much they like the draft and/or how they feel about the person who wrote it. "Good Job!" or "Nice!" are often the most frequently voiced comments in these situations, augmented only by an occasional, "You might want to run spell check," or "You might want to put a period at the end of your third sentence." After that, there's nothing to do but chat or reach for cell phones and PDAs. To prevent cursory treatment, provide guidelines that give students concrete aspects to look for ("Star what you take to be the thesis") and questions that guide their response ("Which of our established criteria does the thesis meet?") Make sure that there is a clear connection between the items on this guideline list and the criteria you use to grade their final drafts. Also, consider standardizing your procedure. You can outline the "steps" and designate time allotments for each on an overhead transparency or on the board.
  • Too many guidelines are provided. Overly-ambitious guideline sheets can overwhelm student readers and can result in their spending too much out-of-class time preparing for groups and too much in-class time talking about a single draft. This, in turn, can result in a group of paralyzed writers who are unable to prioritize the points on their revision plans. Recursive assignments that start with a few target guidelines and then build during the semester allow students to become more comfortable and skilled with the process as more items are added.
  • No models are provided. Again, students may never have seen an effective peer response workshop. Show them how it's done by slapping a student draft on the overhead projector and modeling comments of the sort you would like to see them making. To build a stockpile of usable drafts, create a standardized release form that can be signed by student authors at the conclusion of a course.
  • Uneven attendance or lack of preparation by some students. Usually these problems arise when neither credit nor accountability are worked into the procedure. Given their busy lives and massive to-do lists, students usually make clear distinctions between those activities and assignments that carry credit and those items they are expected to do for no credit. Counting "participation in the workshop process" as part of students' final course grade may motivate them to read the drafts more thoughtfully and give constructive classes. Because instructors are not part of the peer groups, however, it is advisable to provide opportunities for each peer group member to briefly assess the usefulness of their peers' feedback. Consider asking students to use a check, check minus, check plus system for this and include it with a cover letter that is attached to their final draft. Also, collecting all copies of workshopped drafts when final drafts are turned in allows you to monitor the types of comments students are making.
  • Insufficient time is allotted. If students aren't given adequate time to read peer work with guidelines and discuss the draft and comments, they will be sorely tempted to return to the "good job" comments. Students should allow approximately 30 minutes to read and comment on each four-page draft. In class, if groups of four are workshopping full drafts, they should be allowed at least 50 minutes to discuss comments they've prepared for each peer draft--that gives each student a little over ten minutes to hear comments on their drafts.
  • All assignments are designed with instructor as only audience. One of students' chief complaints about peer response workshops is that they are pointless. ("Why should we have other students respond to our writing," they might reason, "when the instructor created not only the assignment but also the grading criteria, and both are based on said instructor's subjective and idiosyncratic scale of likes and dislikes?") Designating different audiences for assignments can allow for more authentic student response. Try creating an assignment whose primary audience is members of the peer group. Other assignments can be directed at specific publications, the campus newspapers for example. Proposals can be targeted toward funding sources. Arguments can be directed toward hypothetical groups of readers who are invested in the opposing view, and so forth.
  • Students feel uncomfortable in their role of respondent.
  • Instructor is uncomfortable "stepping back." As with any cooperative learning venture, interdependence needs to be built into the activity—students need to rely on each other to give formative feedback that will enable them to make necessary changes. A hovering instructor, or a variety of instructor interruptions, can damage the group's autonomy and may cause students to feel that the peer response process is merely an unnecessary hoop the instructor is forcing them to jump through before s/he gives the "real" feedback.
  • Students have only one chance to make workshops work. Long before they hit your class, most of your students will have already experienced some form of the peer workshop and will have therefore formed opinions about how well they do or don't work. It often takes one full go-round with the procedure you are initiating to allow them to see how well they can work in your class. The second time they won't need to be convinced.
  • Peer response workshops are assigned by an instructor who doesn't believe they are worthwhile.