The Problems and Power of Peer Response: How to Get Students Deeply Engaging With Each Other’s Writing

For the first five years of my career, nothing frustrated me more than peer response. On the surface, peer response seemed like the likely answer to what I believe is writing instruction’s hardest question: we know that direct personal feedback is essential in the writing instruction process, but how is one teacher supposed to offer regular and substantial feedback to 150, 160, or 170 students?

And the math of that question is intimidating. Let’s say a teacher is able to read and provide feedback to a 2-3 page paper in an average of 10 minutes, which is on the faster end of the research that I’ve seen. Let’s also say the teacher has five sections with 33 students in each, equalling 165 students (what I had last year). We then take those 165 students and divide them by the rate of six papers an hour, and the result is 27.5 hours required (beyond prepping, planning, teaching, meetings, and emails) to give just one meaningful response to each student.

During those first five years, I knew that I could only provide so much feedback and that it was far less than I wanted my students to receive. So I tried over and over to implement some sort of peer response to get them that additional feedback, but regardless of the structure, duration, and types of pairings, the outcome was always underwhelming. For all of their abilities to connect over other topics, once students began discussing writing, they looked uncomfortable, they rushed the process, and they responded almost exclusively to small surface elements like spelling mistakes and punctuation errors – issues that any spell/grammar-check program could pick up – while the bigger, more important issues remained unmentioned.

After enough failed attempts, peer response slowly drifted out of my classes and into the dustbin of ideas that sound good in books but don’t quite work off the page, and for years my classroom went without any peer response at all.

The solution for my peer response issues came, like so many things in the classroom, from the students themselves. During an informal conversation with some students, I asked them on a whim what the problem with peer response was, and their answers put the problems I’d had over the years into remarkable focus. Here are a few of the responses they gave:

I don’t like peer editing sometimes because I don’t want people to judge or read some pieces I have written.

I don’t like peer editing. I don’t like being corrected or told that I am wrong unless it’s by someone like an adult or close friend.

Most of the time when I get my pieces peer edited I feel like it wasn’t very helpful. People are not critical enough during peer editing so at the most I just get my grammatical errors fixed. I feel that if people weren’t so afraid of hurting feelings, that it would be more helpful.

I feel as though getting someone else’s fresh eyes and opinions is a very useful tool but I hate people reading my writing, ESPECIALLY the first draft.

I don’t like peer editing because I’m usually not confident about my writing, so it makes me uncomfortable when other people read my work.

After hearing their answers, the theme that came through, regardless of the student’s background or skill level with writing, was discomfort. It turns out that sitting down and talking about writing is a field of potential social landmines for students. Here are just a few of the worries students often have when swapping papers with a partner:

  • They might be exposed as too smart or dumb.
  • They might come across as mean when they offer criticism.
  • They might give the wrong answer in their responses. Even students with high writing skills often don’t have enough confidence in their understanding of writing to feel comfortable advising others.
  • They might be embarrassed or scared by other students reading their work, especially if it is drafty.
  • They might feel uncomfortable working with someone they don’t know. A study conducted by Dr. Jeffrey Mogil at McGill University examined how we relate to strangers versus people we know and found that even average interaction with strangers is so inherently stressful that it can be observed on a hormonal level.

With so many potential anxieties and dangers present, is it any surprise that so many students don’t fully engage with peer response, especially when the safer options of pointing out small mechanical issues or simply saying “I can’t find anything wrong” exist?

       Common Peer Response Worries                    Common Peer Response Outcomes

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Slides from my NCTE Annual Conference presentation from last year on peer response

But the good news is that it doesn’t have to be that way. Once I understood what was standing in the way of effective peer response in my classes, I began to figure out solutions, and now peer response is not only back in my classes, it has gone from my biggest frustration to the element of my practice that I am most proud of. Here is how I teach it:

I Turn Off the Amygdala

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Our brains come with a fear sensor called the amygdala that is set with a hair trigger. And when the amygdala is set off, it triggers our fight or flight reaction and overrides the other functions of our brain until the “danger” has passed. If you’ve ever seen an athlete, actor, or politician freeze solid or experienced a panic attack, that is the amygdala at work shutting down our higher order thinking until the more important concern of our safety is settled first.

Due to the stressors often present in peer response, the amygdala is generally a part of the problem, so as teachers we need to do what coaches, theater directors, and anyone else who prepares people for a stressful situations does. We need to train them well enough that the amygdala remains off.

I do this in my class through an adapted protocol from the National School Reform Faculty. If you haven’t heard of them, they are worth a look, as I would argue that no one has better protocols to get students truly talking and listening to each other. A big part of their secret is that their protocols are very structured in terms of who is talking and the goals of the conversation and yet allow students a lot of autonomy in terms of what they talk about. Here is my NSRF-eqsue protocol for getting students more comfortable with peer response:

“Social Studies” Protocol

I Model Good Responses

It is safe to say that many students may have never dug deeply into another student’s paper. And even those who have, may have not done it well. With that in mind, I usually model the best practices for responding to a paper before the students touch each other’s work. I tend to do this in what I call the “Kelly Gallagher method”, where I put up a paper from a previous year under the document camera and then talk through how I would respond to the paper as we read it together out loud (see below; also, as an added bonus, Kelly talks in this short video clip about co-creating a rubric with students. This is a wonderful activity for building student buy-in and understanding). As I do this, I focus my guided instruction on the importance of responding to the “bigger issues” instead of small, mechanical details.

I Sell Them Early and Often That Peer Response Is Important 

Students tend to be wary of things they don’t understand. With that in mind, I use the following points to sell my students on the value of peer response:

  • They need a lot of meaningful feedback, and the realities of our educational system limit how much the teacher can provide. Peer response offers the opportunity for more.
  • Responding to others will improve their own writing because they will learn from their peers, gain a critical eye, and learn to better anticipate their audience.
  • Having multiple peers look at it allows for multiple perspectives.
  • Peer response has certain advantages over teacher response. For example, it is easier to be more open and honest with peers than it is with a teacher.

I usually cap my sell off by inviting in peer mentors from the University of Michigan’s Sweetland Writing Center. I find they are always excited to come visit, and while the college students are older, they are still young enough to feel more like older siblings than adults. This means that my students often respond stronger to their enthusiasm and explanations concerning the value of peer response than they ever would to mine. Of course, not all teachers are lucky enough to have a world-class university two miles away, but I would wager that a lot of college writing centers would also be more than willing to take time to digitally visit a class too.

I Structure for Success

Early in the peer response process, I always give the students a step-by-step guide for going through another person’s paper. I allow them to be flexible with how they use this guide, as I want their responses to be fluid and follow the needs of the paper, but most students are really excited to have a map to guide them through the process the first couple times they do it. As students grow more comfortable with response, the guides become more open-ended and eventually disappear altogether, but during the early sessions, it makes a huge difference. Here is an example of one of my early guides:

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In the end, setting up peer response like this is a significant time investment, but the payoff is huge. Students tend to get it really quick, and once they are constantly receiving feedback on their work, seeing the models of other student’s papers, and assessing writing, the growth in their writing is often amazing. Further, I’ve found the students with the biggest gains are usually ESL/ EFL students or those who struggle the most with writing, as it gives them the one-on-on time that I wish I could provide. So if you do one new thing this year, I encourage you to build robust peer response into the heart of your teaching. You will be glad that you did, and if you need any materials to help with that, don’t hesitate to reach out.

Yours in Teaching,

MattScreen Shot 2017-08-07 at 1.21.22 PM

 

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