Why Students Often Struggle With Peer Review and What We Can Do About It

When I was an education school student, I feel quickly and deeply in love with Nancy Atwell’s In the Middle thanks to quotes like this:

We laid down the old, stodgy burdens of the profession—the Warriner’s Handbooks, the forty- five minute lectures and canned assignments—and embraced new roles . . . These were heady times, as many English teachers abandoned the old orthodoxies and cleared the way for our kids’ voices.

The idea of laying aside the orthodoxies that I hated as a student–the endless worksheets and 45 min. lectures on parts of speech–and putting more emphasis on students talking with each other about their reading and writing was for me, like it was for Atwell, intoxicating.

Consequently, I remember with great clarity the day of my first peer review because I’d been excitedly waiting for it ever since reading Atwell’s words. The students were working on a hero’s journey–the Harry Potter books were all the rage–and I gave them 45 minutes to read and respond to each other’s papers. I was vibrating w/ excitement when I introduced the idea, and yet the students showed little reaction, with most averting my gaze. It didn’t take long for me to realize that something was off, and I grew more than a little bit annoyed as, regardless of my prompts and prods, most students did little more than scatter a few vague comments like “Nice work” or “Good job”  and/or provide a handful of grammatical corrections that even the more primitive spelling and grammar check programs of the early 2000s could have fixed. 

This was my initiation into peer review and unfortunately my second and third attempts yielded similar results. Soon, after enough reconfigurations without any noticeable improvement in the outcome, I wrote off peer review as something that sounds great in books and professional development but doesn’t really apply to my classroom, and for years I did no peer review at all. 

Fast forward to today and peer review is a foundational element of my classroom. It is one of the most effective pedagogical tools I have, and by the end of the year, many students identify it as the most useful thing we did in class.

The secret behind this huge swing? When I first tried peer review, I assumed that the key to peer review was getting out of the way so students could talk about writing. But it turns out that exactly the opposite is true. I now know that peer review is one of the most complex and intimidating things students are asked to do in school, and like most complex and intimidating things, we need to give students lots of preparation before expecting them to be able to properly engage in the process Here is how I do that:


Any conversation about getting students ready for peer review needs to start with the fact that it is truly terrifying for many students. This is true because…

  • The act of peer review is an act of taking a close look at one’s deficiencies. While failing forward and celebrating mistakes have been in vogue recently, that doesn’t change the fact that it is often unpleasant and embarrassing to look at our mistakes and gaps.
  • Peer review is so public. Normal decorum is for teachers to return big tests and papers face-down because we know that doing so face-up would broadcasting those errors to the world and shame many students. But in peer response, the whole activity is exposing a student’s errors to the light of day for others to see.
  • Students often feel unqualified to do peer review. A lot of students feel unprepared for the job of assessing someone else’s writing and are terrified of doing it wrong because of how it could reflect on them or impact their partners.
  • Did I mention that it is so public? The impact of all of these factors is amplified by the structure of peer review, which generally involves having a the reviewer sit right next to the reviewee. Even most accomplished writers I know tend to squirm when someone looks over something as they sit there, so you can imagine how many of our students feel.

Add all of these things together and peer response is a minefield of social risks that we need to deactivate before many students will and can engage in peer review.

My first step in doing this is something that happens well before the first peer review: I normalize errors. In his most watched TED Talk of all time, Ken Robinson discusses how in our education system one of the clearest lessons is often that mistakes are about the worst thing we can do. I see this every day–kids frozen in fear of mistakes because mistakes mean lost points, which in turn means lowering their grades and shrinking their options. Many students have had such thorough training in this that if we want them to view mistakes as anything but bad, we need to consciously normalize them. 

I do that through voicing the importance of mistakes. For example, I start the year with this quote:

“I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes. Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world.” –Neil Gaiman

But quotes from wildly successful people about the importance of mistakes can feel hollow if that is all we provide. With this in mind, I also strive to show them that errors can be good things through how I respond to their errors. If I approach their errors as opportunities, not as liabilities, and I do it often enough and with enough energy, it can go a long way towards making my class one where making mistakes isn’t so scary.

Next, I create space where I can listen to and validate the students fears and worries about peer review. Many students come into my class with negative associations from previous bad experiences with peer review, and if I encourage them to talk about these feelings, it can draw a line between what we are doing in my class and any negative associations they have from previous classes. 

The way I do this is I have my students fill out a form about how they feel about peer review on our first day. I then drop the responses into a Google doc, print it off for them, and then use these as the starting point for a whole class discussion on peer review. 

Screen Shot 2018-11-10 at 10.34.28 AM

After listening to their fears, the next step is training, because peer review is not a natural, intuitive skill; it is a complicated, complex task that combines two very hard things: writing and social interaction. I start this training with direct instruction that looks like this:

Screen Shot 2018-11-15 at 8.00.42 PM

A pdf of the Peer Review Cheat Sheet

I then follow this  by modeling the difference between a proofreader—which will be the first instinct for many of them and looks like the following…

Screen Shot 2018-11-15 at 9.56.05 PM

…and a reviewer, which should look closer to this:

Screen Shot 2018-11-15 at 8.04.03 PM

The reason to draw this line between proofreader and reviewer is because it is both better practice in general to focus on just the “big” lessons during drafting and because the students tend to do a far better job of being clear and going deep when they are discussing a limited number of topics.

After this modeling, we then practice, practice, and practice with a wide variety of papers—ranging from As to Cs—as there is something to be learned both about writing and reviewing from all sorts of papers. 

In these later stages of training, I also try to make a case to students for why peer review is valuable because if students don’t see value in peer review, they are unlikely to expend any more than the minimal effort. I do this through discussing the value the comes from having numerous other eyes look at a work and the value we get from reviewing someone else’s work. Here are some of my favorite articles for doing this:

“What’s Up With That? Why It’s So Hard to Catch Your Own Typos”

“Mixed Signals: Why People Misunderstand Each Other”

“Peer reviewers learn from giving comments”

Lastly, once we finally do engage in peer review, I structure it to make it as clear and comfortable as possible. This starts by making sure that the peer review session is not the first time the students have talked to each other. Ideally, students will have worked with their partner multiple times before reviewing, as this will limit the amount of stranger danger they might feel. One of the easiest ways to do that is to have them brainstorm and work on early stages together, so that by the time they get to the full review they are not strangers, even if they were at the start. 

I also make sure that our initial forays into peer review are highly structured because while I love autonomy in many situations, a blank page and blank check can be intimidating, while structures and rules, if done right, can bring comfort because students know exactly what is expected. The two areas that I structure the most are…

  1. The tasks, which I try to break into smaller and easier to manage pieces than just “review the paper”
  2. And the interactions between students, because interacting with peers in an academic setting can be very stressful.

Here is an example of how I did that this year in my Composition class:

Screen Shot 2018-11-15 at 10.04.14 PM

Some key structural features in this are the following:

  • I do it in a group (I prefer groups of three), which takes some of the pressure off of each student and limits the likelihood that a student won’t get anything of value.
  • There are multiple opportunities for human interaction, which helps to remind the group members that a real human is receiving these comments.
  • Each interaction and step is also clearly outlined, which hopefully means that each student knows exactly what he/she/they is supposed to do at any given time.
  • It also has a cheat sheet of potential topics to add an extra layer of comfort.

In the end, this might seem like a lot of work just to set up peer review, but I promise the investment is worth it. Once students master the ability to talk to each other, the classroom and the writing that happens within it are transformed in ways that hardly seemed possible when all writing had to wait to filter through the bottleneck of my attention!

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