by Maggie | Writing Center Consultant | April 27th, 2017
Many writing centers, including ours, use peer writing consultants to help students improve their writing skills. Because of this, it seems somewhat ironic that many of our experiences with peer review in our classes are typically not the most helpful. So, what is it about the Writing Center that makes this type of peer review more helpful? In each case, either the peer reviewer or the peer consultant has the goal to give helpful feedback, but what makes the outcomes so different?
Receiving criticism is just as difficult a task as responding to it, especially when the skillset in question is writing-based. Before we reach the eighth grade, we are exposed to peer review, fitted to this common scenario:
Our Language Arts teachers informally request that we exchange papers with partners. And, as we provide basic commentary on our classmates’ essays, we await our feedback with a mixture of anxiety and excitement. We wonder: What will they think of my conclusion? Will they understand the concept of my second paragraph? Do they have any recommendations for a title?
Finally, when we are handed back our papers, we look to find a few grammatical errors highlighted and a Good Job! scrawled underneath the final word of the final sentence of the final paragraph. Because there is not much to adjust, we assume that all other elements of our writing is acceptable. Still, it would have been nice to know how our peers reacted to our arguments and if they bought them for reasons x, y, and/or z.
After our fifth encounter with shallow, vague commentaries, we start to modify the way we perform peer review, stamping a Well Done! on each essay that falls into our laps. Why bother doing more? There is certainly no payoff reflected in our thinking or grades at the end of the day.
Did we ever consider that the five reviewers before us came to the same conclusion? Could it be possible that peer review workshops devolve into editing cycles due to a lack in writers’ willingness and ability to give meaningful peer feedback?
Researchers Kristi Lundstrom and Wendy Baker theorize that the act of peer reviewing has a significant impact on the person who is providing critical feedback on another’s writing, especially if he/she is an ESL student. They contend that, during the review process, students develop skills that they can use to self-evaluate their own writing. To calculate writing improvement, the researchers had two separate groups, one that solely gave feedback and one that solely received feedback, complete timed-writes before and after a trial period. Considering organization, development, cohesion, vocabulary, mechanics, grammar, and overall performance, the researchers determined that, although both groups demonstrated improvement in each aspect of writing, students who purely reviewed others’ drafts scored better than those who merely used others’ feedback.
This is also similar to how writing center staff report having improved their own writing abilities after having worked in a writing center. In a way, working in the writing center is like training to become an expert in both giving and receiving criticism. So, it’s possible that by allowing IEP writers to review and provide feedback on others’ drafts (with the guidance of their writing consultant), that they too, may improve their own writing skills in the process.
While their results have their limitations, I am interested to see how writers in the Intensive English Program (IEP) might respond to reviewing drafts (other than their own) within their weekly sessions, where their consultants are able to provide them with guidance for giving feedback and taking on another perspective. Would their skills similarly transfer?
And, if this holds true for IEP writers, how could consultants implement a similar focus on peer review in their other weekly sessions and/or regular writing appointments?
Lundstrom, Kristi, and Wendy Baker. “To Give Is Better than to Receive: The Benefits of Peer Review to the Reviewer’s Own Writing.” Journal of Second Language Writing, vol. 18, no. 1, Mar. 2015, pp. 30-43.