Using Peer Groups

The pedagogical advantages of small group work are well documented. Students often learn just as much from each other as they do from faculty. In addition, students in small discussion groups often generate substantive topics for writing and thinking. Lastly, because of the interconnections between reading, writing, thinking and speaking, students who speak and write in groups -- working collaboratively -- master their material sooner than students working in isolation or only in contact with a professor.

Despite the advantages of small group work, students often come to college needing preparation for effective collaboration. For instance, students will not necessarily know how to give feedback to peer drafts and may need encouragement and assistance in moving past empty, if flattering, commentary (e.g., "It seems good to me."). Most students need to be taught how to give constructive, useful feedback.

A useful approach:

  1. Hand out copies of a sample completed assignment (perhaps written by a student in a previous semester).
  2. Discuss the criteria on the feedback page so that the language becomes meaningful to everyone.
  3. Show how you would apply the criteria by "thinking out loud" as you read the first paragraph of the paper.
  4. Ask students to read the paper and complete a response page (alternatively, they can complete the page out of class, although this runs the risk of deprioritizing the work of critical response).
  5. Discuss the responses as a class. This step is critical for students to feel as if the process is worthwhile. Student responses such as "This is good" or "This is bad" are too general to be helpful and don't give a writer enough information on how or what to improve. Show students how to go beyond generalities by reinforcing appropriate and effective comments as students offer them in discussion. Encourage them to specify what needs improvement and what works well. Practice sessions are important for the success of peer review. They give you a chance to clarify the criteria and even aspects of the assignment if that proves necessary. Once your students become familiar with how to respond appropriately using peer feedback forms, they are ready to try it out on their own drafts.