Peer Response: 3 Ways to Foster Useful Feedback

Teachers worldwide lament the amount of time and effort it takes to give students feedback on their writing. We know it’s helpful for students to hear from readers on a regular basis as they draft and revise their texts, but we also feel the pressure to get through so many other activities that we can’t devote as much time as we would like. We also wonder whether students are becoming too dependent on us and not developing their own strategies for getting feedback that will carry beyond the classroom.

Peer response is one solution to both time management and strategy development. At its most basic, peer response engages students’ peers (usually their classmates) with providing response—in any form, oral or written, on a portion of or a whole text. Theoretically, this process has myriad benefits beyond saving the teacher time. By sharing their writing with their classmates, students gain additional readers who bring different perspectives and may represent a more real-world readership than just the teacher can provide. As naïve readers without as much background knowledge as the teacher, student peers can point out areas in texts where writers need to add more detail or clarify an argument. They may bring alternative viewpoints and can help writers see where they need to address counterarguments or cite sources for claims. Furthermore, unlike teachers, who have an ability to understand many forms of nonstandard language use, peer readers can highlight areas where writers have not expressed their ideas clearly as a result of grammatical or lexical problems.

All of this is well and good, but most of us who have tried to implement peer response in our teaching have found that it doesn’t go as smoothly as we might have hoped. Writers don’t bring their drafts to class or don’t want to share with their classmates. Peer reviewers focus entirely on correcting spelling errors (even to the point of making correctly spelled words wrong) or superficially skim through and comment “It’s good” without any further support. Even if we provided guiding questions, reviewers may treat these as mechanical directions rather than starting points for thinking.

We may be tempted to give up on peer response, but in this blog post I would like to offer some ideas from recent research that might help alleviate problems and provide students with the opportunity both to learn how to provide useful feedback and to receive helpful comments on their own texts.

1. Establish a Climate That Fosters Supportive Response

The research shows that set-up for peer response begins long before the first time students exchange drafts with each other. Dixon and Hawe (2017) documented how teachers actively created an atmosphere and fostered attitudes in the classroom that allowed students to develop trust in each other. Through modeling the desired approach, the teachers helped students learn to see their peers as “critical friends” with whom they could talk about their writing at any time during the day. The teachers also encouraged students to turn to their peers to discuss their drafts whenever they had questions.

2. Allow Students to Provide Feedback in Their First Languages

Another way to develop this culture of trust is to allow students to use all their linguistic resources in responding. Chamcharatsri (2017) paired his students by first language for a peer response activity. When he surveyed the class, students said they valued the ease of expressing their emotions and ideas orally, but they had mixed feelings about native-language written feedback. Nevertheless, Chamcharatsri suggests that this approach might help students build community and feel more comfortable talking about their writing with their peers.

3. Provide Peer Response Training

Summarizing recent research, Yu and Lee (2016) found that many studies had concluded the value of peer response training. They noted that successful training included focus on “awareness raising, productive group interaction, and productive response and revision” (p. 471). One way to convey these ideas is for the teacher to model and demonstrate effective feedback practices, either in front of the whole class or through individual conferences. Class discussions of sample texts can help students learn what to look for and how to offer constructive advice to their classmates. Some studies have seen value in online training where students can learn how to give feedback without feeling like they are in the spotlight.

Mangelsdorf and Ruecker (2018) argue that even when the peer reviewers are graduate students, it is important to teach them ways to talk with each other constructively about both language and ideas. In their study of graduate students in mixed-discipline writing groups, they found that students benefited from having specified goals for response (focusing on either conveying content or proofreading language, but not both at the same time) and from being in ongoing groups of students from similar disciplines. Mangelsdorf and Ruecker also noted that both first- and second-language English speakers were able to help each other with language-related feedback, as often the second-language writers knew grammatical rules better than native-speaking writers did.

It All Works Out in the End

Finally, it’s worth keeping in mind that even if student writers don’t find the feedback they received from their peers all that helpful, they probably benefited from the opportunity to read what their classmates wrote in response to the same assignment or prompt. In a classic study, Lundstrom and Baker (2009) divided student writers into two groups, those who only provided feedback (they read another student’s text but didn’t receive feedback on their own work) and those who only received feedback (they were not asked to review any other students’ writing). Lundstrom and Baker discovered that the benefits actually were greater for the feedback providers than for the feedback receivers; they suggested “that learning to review others’ writing improves one’s own writing may be [because] students learn from these activities to critically self-evaluate their own writing” (p. 38).

What other approaches or strategies have you found to work well in setting up peer response in your classes? Share your ideas in the comments section below.

References

Chamcharatsri, B. (2017). “I could express feeling completely”: Inviting L2 writers to use L1 in peer responses. Journal of Response to Writing, 3(2), 63–73.

Dixon, H., & Hawe, E. (2017). Creating the climate and space for peer review within the writing classroom. Journal of Response to Writing, 3(1), 6–30.

Lundstrom, K., & Baker, W. (2009). To give is better than to receive: The benefits of peer review to the reviewer’s own writing. Journal of Second Language Writing, 18(1), 30–43. doi:10.1016/j.jslw.2008.06.002

Mangelsdorf, K., & Ruecker, T. (2018). Peer reviews and graduate writers: Engagements with language and disciplinary differences while responding to writing. Journal of Response to Writing, 4(1), 4–33.

Yu, S., & Lee, I. (2016). Peer feedback in second language writing (2005–2014). Language Teaching, 49(04), 461–493. doi:10.1017/s0261444816000161

About Betsy Gilliland

Betsy Gilliland
Betsy Gilliland is an associate professor in the Department of Second Language Studies at the University of Hawaiʻi Mānoa, where she teaches courses on second language writing, teacher research, and qualitative research methods to undergraduate and graduate students. She is chair-elect of the TESOL Second Language Writing Interest Section and has published in TESOL Journal, Journal of Second Language Writing, and ELT Journal, among others. She was a Fulbright Scholar at the Universidad de Atacama (Chile) in 2018.
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