Dos and don’ts for peer feedback that works Peer feedback can happen if you get the details right.

This post also appears on the Writable blog.

peer-feedback

A list of dos and don’ts for peer feedback.

“Yea, we did it. We’re done.”

It was 10 minutes into class, in my second week ever of teaching.

After we had read Alice Walker’s “Flowers” and written a response, I set students off on a peer revision activity. About 600 seconds later, most of the class was finished.

“Well, what else can you say about her writing?” I asked.

“Nothing, it was good. That’s it.”

Some form of that conversation occurred over and over as I circled the room.  And at the time, I was baffled: Why did this lesson end so quickly? Why did the students have so little to say? Was I any good at this teaching thing?

Fast forward a few years, and the scene looks different.

No, it’s not perfect, but there are good things happening: students spend time reading each other’s writing, using the guidance I’ve provided to write helpful comments, and then to reflect on the feedback and use it to revise. It certainly takes longer than 10 minutes. Most importantly, the students get better at writing when we do these activities.

But what’s the difference? How did my peer feedback lessons change since then? That’s what I’d like to share with you today.

There are clear dos and don’ts of peer feedback lessons that have emerged from my teaching and reflection over the past seven years. Your list may differ slightly, and you might even trade some of my dos for your don’ts or vice versa. But the point is, by creating the right conditions in our classrooms, and creating a place for effective, respectful communication, we can make peer feedback not just a time filler, but an effective learning activity.

Here’s my list:

The student’s role

no-peer-editing

But what’s the problem with peer editing? Quite simply, students often don’t know the concepts well enough to correct them on another’s paper. Beyond that, they focus on surface level edits, not ones that will improve the overall quality of their writing and help them become more purposeful writers. So, when peer editing is asked for, students often feel compelled to find errors in their partner’s work, and they spend time correcting the wrong things.This is at the top of my list for a reason. If there’s one strategy that will consistently fail, it’s having students (especially younger ones) peer edit their papers. To clarify, peer editing happens when students find and correct mistakes in grammar, usage, mechanics, and spelling in their partner’s writing.

Instead, give students one area of their partner’s paper to respond to, not correct. For example, I might tell students to reflect on all of the summary in their partner’s work in yellow.  Two results might look like this:

Example 1 (too much summary)

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Aliquam bibendum eros a odio lobortis, consequat tempus elit bibendum. Aenean pulvinar lorem vel enim imperdiet auctor. Nunc rhoncus suscipit nibh, nec convallis orci malesuada nec. Pellentesque in lorem et tellus varius elementum. Nullam felis lorem, viverra et sapien vel, facilisis iaculis lorem. Duis non mollis felis, eget fermentum est. Aenean dictum ultrices felis et aliquam. Phasellus facilisis risus nec dolor sagittis, sit amet viverra eros lacinia. Proin vitae justo quis massa posuere lacinia sit amet sed felis.

Example 2 (balance of summary/analysis)

Vestibulum sodales vestibulum mollis. Aenean orci est, porta ut facilisis ut, mollis vel ante. Nulla rutrum mi erat, vitae placerat justo malesuada non. Nunc vulputate blandit turpis. Nulla id euismod libero. Cras aliquam felis sem, iaculis egestas odio ultricies quis. Class aptent taciti sociosqu ad litora torquent per conubia nostra, per inceptos himenaeos. Pellentesque habitant morbi tristique senectus et netus et malesuada fames ac turpis egestas. Duis sed eros massa. Nullam dapibus id mauris id fringilla. Curabitur ac metus consectetur, lacinia risus vel, posuere erat. Etiam pulvinar vulputate ligula ac facilisis. Aliquam quam lorem, dapibus tincidunt diam sed, consequat blandit urna. Nullam et feugiat ante.

As students review, I can circulate around the room, and find some well-balanced examples of summary and analysis. Then, students can compare these successful examples to their own work, reflect, and use their findings to revise.

The teacher’s role

model-good-feedback

I like to use peer feedback days as a time for a condensed mini-lesson, most often a review of a skill that students have already practiced. Instead of simply providing the directions and then asking students to begin responding to each other, I teach a short lesson, often using a mentor text that demonstrates the skill well, and ask students to practice identifying or commenting on this skill in a partner’s work.

Then, I’ll monitor the room, providing clarifying questions and prompts, and selecting an example of work from a student who gets it. This student or I can then provide this second example that meets expectations for the day before students go off in their partners or groups.

Quality comments

craft-useful-comments

Nothing drains the energy of a teacher as much as this scene: after writing on papers all weekend, the teacher returns them. Students flip to the back, check the grade, and practice their free throw…right into the trash. Time wasted, and a chance to learn missed.

Why does this happen? Often, it’s haphazard comments stuff in the margins. These don’t come with any sense of importance. And, there are often hard to read and too vague to be useful.

Of course, when students emulate this behavior, the comments are equally poor.

Instead, both teachers and students can craft useful comments by following templates and comment stems. For example, Mark Barnes advocates for the SE2R approach to feedback comments: summarize, explain, redirect, and resubmit. If a teacher wanted to provide a model of SE2R feedback for students, they might write something like this:

You wrote an introduction, four body paragraphs, and a short conclusion. You included all of the required components, including an extra image to supplement your writing. You show that you can successfully use transitions, integrate evidence, and vary your sentence length for effect. One thing you can still work on is crafting an effective conclusion. Revisit the sample essay we annotated in class, and re-read the notes about the conclusion. Then, revise your conclusion and return it to me by Monday.

Now, students are not responsible for assigning a new due date for their classmates. But, they can use a template like SE2R to craft useful comments for their peers. This beats a vague comment in the margin any day. Other tools that helps teachers structure feedback and help students comment more specifically on their peers’ work, can have the same effect.

Part of a process

feedback-process

What I mean here is that peer feedback works best in my experience as part of a writing process. In other words, as students work, they have the chance to learn through mini-lessons, confer with the teacher, review their work independently, and get feedback from a peer.  This process allows students writing to fully develop from draft to publish.

A problem can occur when peer feedback happens, and then students are asked to revise their work and submit for a grade. Speaking again from experience, I know that I’ve felt rushed before to move on to the next unit, which has resulted in me not facilitating a full writing process as much as I should have. The result is more student confusion and less quality writing.

Make peer feedback one strategy in a few that you use to help students revise. I’ve outlined a few ideas for you here, here, and here.

Think about gym class

One way that I like to manage my expectations and avoid negative emotions in teaching is to use the mantra of “what if this was gym class?” Here’s what I mean: if my students are conducting peer feedback and the results don’t look like the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, I ask myself, “What if we were lifting weights in gym class? Would I expect every student to lift 100 lbs over their heads?” The answer is no, I’d just want each student to work hard and get a little stronger today than they were yesterday.

The same is true for a peer feedback lesson. The goal is for both the reader and the writer to work hard at writing and responding to the work, and for every student to get a little bit better than they were last time.

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