Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning
The posting below assembles a kit of principles and exercises designed to help teachers consolidate and improve the ways they use informal writing and peer response assignments, in class and out, to increase student engagement and critical thinking in any discipline. It is co-authored by Jane Kokernak, Lecturer in WAC at MIT, and Lowry Pei, Professor of English at Simmons College, who are at work on a series about teaching college writing.
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Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning
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11 Ways to Teach Peer Writing and Response, in Any Course and Any Size Class
By providing students opportunities to write, and to work with their peers via writing, a teacher in any discipline gives students an opportunity to become active agents in their learning, makers of meaning whose words count in a social setting. Much can be accomplished with relatively little effort on the teacher's part when you get students to give each other feedback on informal yet idea-rich writing.
This teachers know, and even ones who don't teach what are called writing courses assign peer writing and response to their mathematics, art history, psychology, and political science students. Why? Writing's role in critical thinking and learning has been well documented, and it has important social and pedagogical functions as well. Collaborative writing and peer responding helps to create the network of relationships that makes a class succeed. Informal writing and small group work varies the classroom experience and transfers more responsibility to students. Even in large lecture courses, in-class writing and response time fosters ideas, problem-solving, and playfulness and makes a space for everyone to say something to someone.
From our own practices and from colleagues' across the disciplines, we've assembled a kit of basic principles and tested exercises that could help teachers consolidate and improve the ways they teach peer writing and response in any course, with any size class, at any level of student mastery. Some of these activities can also be adapted for teaching more formal writing projects that undergo draft and revision.
1. Set aside time for the initial peer activities to happen in class.
Face-to-face human interactions lay the groundwork for similar activities outside of class or online. You can begin at any point in the course, whether it's the first week or the tenth, because making peer writing and response part of your course signals to students a belief that learning and meaning-making are collaborative, and not only individual, tasks. Activities such as ones we suggest raise vital questions about course content and can infuse new energy and ideas into a flagging group.
2. As a first activity, make sure that every student has been heard to read at least a sentence of her work out loud to her peers.
Example: A math professor could get his students to write about their thinking process as they approach a problem. In class, students could then look over their writing, underline a sentence or a few sentences, depending on class size, that they're willing to read aloud, then do so one after the other. This would be a way of getting their voices into the air and letting students get over their shyness about being heard and responded to.
3. Combine brief individual writing exercises with collaborative work.
This takes only a little time, draws on students' course knowledge and analytical powers, and can be easily varied and used again and again. Example: a professor of ecology might have her students write each week about concepts in the course readings that are crucial to the course. She could first ask the students to explain a key concept in writing in their own words; then she could have the students share their efforts in small groups and come up with a group version of the explanation, making use of the strengths that they find in the individual pieces.
4. Always structure the tasks for peer response.
Whether in or outside class or online, peer response activities should be focused and manageable. Before work begins, explain and model useful responses, in class if possible, or in instructions that you hand out or post online. Use worksheets or online forms to guide responders in giving appropriate responses. Because peer feedback, like a teacher's, cannot consider every aspect of the written piece, design a worksheet that focuses the reviewer on only three or four substantial issues. If, for example, you are concerned with students supporting all their points with data, the feedback should zero in on assertions, evidence, and relevance, not on punctuation.
5. Choose some pieces that will be read aloud and discussed in class, by the whole group.
Keep track of whose work was discussed publicly, and try to avoid repeaters. Doing at least one piece this way for each assignment cycle communicates to students that the task of writing is essential to the course. Earlier in the course, choose strong work that has features you wish others would emulate; as the semester continues, choose pieces that show solid work but contain a problem that many people are having. As the group discusses these pieces, individual students will absorb the advice they are giving to their peers and use it, perhaps even unconsciously, in their own future writing.
6. Emphasize observational feedback.
The evaluative response may not be the most useful response -- a student writer may learn more about the state and meaning of her writing and thinking from a peer who summarizes the gist; asks questions about logical gaps or leaps; articulates what about a written text made him think; or shares his knowledge on the writer's topic. Try this: As a first attempt at getting your students to do this, have them trade brief pieces of writing (e.g., two-page reading responses) and write a thoughtful letter of reply to the other. Because informal writing, like a reading response, may be used in a content course strictly as a conveyor of course-related thinking, it doesn't always need to be considered and evaluated as a crafted text.
7. During collaborative work, in class and out, periodically touch base with each pair or group.
As teacher supervising peer review exercises in class, your first responsibility is to the success of the activity, rather than to any one piece of writing. In the classroom, spend a minute or two with each small group, asking them how the process is going and, if they seem stuck, offering an observation or question to restart their conversation. In online forums, make your presence known -- "lurk" openly and affirmatively -- by commenting on a student's contribution. Your attention motivates commitment to the process, and even a simple statement (e.g., "The two of you are getting to a more complex understanding of Hobbes's concerns about the state of nature.") affirms and gives shape to students' informal dialogue.
8. Have a back-up plan for empty-handed students who come to class without any writing to share.
Distribute the empty-handed ones among groups as feedback givers, since they still have responsibility to their peers and presumably have the capacity to give something useful. Their participation in small-group discussion might help them to get their own writing going. Or, if they seem overwhelmed by the assignment and unable to make useful contributions, meet with them as a group to try to help them break the logjam. Talk to them about their (missing) work-in-progress; ask what's holding up their process. Share your experiences with getting stalled projects going; share some moderate sympathy, too, without absolving such students of their responsibility to do some work.
9. Base a peer feedback exercise for students on a kind of helpful feedback you have gotten from a professional peer.
Your current scholarship -- whatever mode that takes (writing, reviewing, editing, consulting) -- gives you insight into effective habits of mind and practices that nurture work in the field. Take a look into your archives for helpful comments from mentors, colleagues, and editors on your work, or unearth examples of feedback you've offered to colleagues. If, for example, a peer reviewer helpfully prompted you to think and write more clearly by asking a set of specific questions, this may serve as a model for a worksheet for students, getting them to ask discipline-specific questions about each other's writing and thinking. Not only must students learn to write in discipline-specific ways, over time they can learn to give and receive feedback the way professionals do in your field, which in turn develops their own writing.
10. Experiment with and vary the kinds of peer feedback exercises you assign.
Students get good at giving feedback fairly quickly. In fact, they can get too good and start hoeing the same feedback row over and over, picking out weak claims, for example, or perceiving logic problems. To counteract this kind of specialization, therefore, design and assign different feedback tasks and help students develop a repertoire of ways of reading and responding. Here are a handful of examples:
* Favorite Sentence. Ask the writer to look over his own piece and mark his favorite sentence; this motivates careful re-reading. Ask the student giving a response to do the same; this is a simple way to bring about encouraging feedback.
* Juicy Verbs. Students trade drafts, circle all the verbs in a section or passage, and suggest more informative ones. Sharpening verbs sharpens thinking and also helps develop a vocabulary appropriate to the discipline.
* Curiosity Response. Students read each other's work, marking places that provoke a desire or need for more information or discussion. In the margin near such moments of curiosity, the reader should say or ask what she'd like to know more about.
* Quicksand Moment. Have students trade short drafts, read them, and identify the most difficult part, the one that's confusing, dense, gets them stuck. In a paragraph, the reader should reflect and write on what causes the difficulty. The most difficult passage in a text may be the paradoxically promising site where the student's thinking can be seen developing.
* Believing and Doubting Game. Peter Elbow came up with this great activity for responding to writing that makes claims, takes a position, or promotes an idea or methodology. Find a full description of it online or in his handbook listed in the following tip.
11. Seek and share resources and exercises on peer writing and review not only among colleagues in your field but across disciplines as well. Because most disciplines teach thinking through writing of some kind, helpful techniques for using student writing may come from almost any field. And the texts listed below -- which offer peer writing and review exercises, a discussion of principles, and sample worksheets -- will also add substantially to your repertoire.
Bean, John C. Engaging Ideas: The Professor's Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. Jossey-Bass, 1996.
"Collaborative Learning/Learning With Peers." Materials for Faculty, Dartmouth Writing Program. December 2007. <http://www.dartmouth.edu/~writing/materials/faculty/methods/collaborative.shtml>
Elbow, Peter and Patricia Belanoff. Sharing and Responding, 3e. McGraw-Hill, 2000.
Pei, Lowry. "Uses of Informal Writing." Materials on Teaching Writing, Simmons College Writing Center. October 2007. <http://my.simmons.edu/academics/writing-center/wac/teaching-writing.shtml>