Improve Student Writing with Peer Review

Written by Austin Palaad
July 22, 2019 • 4 minute read

Harvard Study of Undergraduate Writing’s student survey results
Infographic of Harvard Study of Undergraduate Writing’s student survey provided by Harvard Writing Project Bulletin

We all know that feedback is an essential component of the writing process. However, when the final grade of a paper or assignment is the sole source of feedback, students often experience frustration with their progress as writers. According to the Harvard Study of Undergraduate Writing, ongoing since Fall 1997, “timely and detailed feedback plays a crucial role in students’ development as thinkers and scholars.”

As an instructor, you only have so much time to provide students with detailed feedback on their writing. It is often impractical for you to be responsible for multiple rounds of feedback for each assignment that every one of your students writes. By facilitating peer review of student writing you will be able to not only expedite the writing process — but also help students understand your grading expectations, grasp methodology, gauge their progress in the course, and see their writing from a reader’s perspective.

Students are often indifferent at best when reviewing their peers’ work. Sometimes being forced to swap papers can feel like a chore. Student comments on work can be shallow and quickly scribbled down to fill a requirement. Despite this, peer review is one of the most flexible and effective assessment tools for student writing. Here are some of the great advantages of effective peer review, courtesy of the University of Colorado - Denver’s Writing Center:

Advantages for the Instructor:

  • Minimizes workload for instructors by providing students with an additional set of feedback from others familiar with the assignment
  • Creates additional opportunities for shy or quiet students to earn participation points
  • Prompts students to think critically about the assignment, ask questions, and talk through areas of confusion before the paper is due
  • Provides students time in class to review and revise their work with the instructor’s guidance
  • Produces better writing that accommodates the needs of real and anticipated readers, including the instructor
  • Encourages students to formulate and communicate effective and constructive feedback, which will make peer review more successful with each iteration
  • Demonstrates how peer review is part of the writing process, making it more likely that students will seek out additional feedback when drafting

Advantages for the Student:

  • Helps students identify strengths and weaknesses in their own writing and their peers’ work
  • Allows students the opportunity to bounce ideas off of each other
  • Provides students with additional perspectives on their writing
  • Encourages students to see writing as a process where feedback can help make their writing better
  • Prompts students to write for and address the needs of a specific audience or reader
  • Encourages students to read texts more critically, which can transfer to course readings
  • Gives students more examples of how to write at the college level

However, peer review is not as simple as giving your students a rubric and asking them to write comments on each others’ work. There needs to be clear expectations from the instructor in terms of preparation, execution, and reflection. Without these standards and adequate incentives in place, students may not buy into the process and simply go through the motions.

One of the most important outcomes of peer review is that it reminds students that their papers are written to be read, not just submitted. The audience for an assignment is often not only their professor — this helps students not take clarity and context for granted as they will often assume that the professor will already understand their intended argument.

For peer review to be effective, students must buy into the process and be willing to participate. This requires the instructor to explicitly state the expectations and desired outcomes of the process to students. It also means that there must be adequate incentives in place; for example, minor points for participation in peer review sessions can be added to the final assignment grade. Students will also be more likely to give effective feedback in a facilitated classroom situation than outside of class on their own.

The first step in implementing peer review is to communicate purpose. Students should focus on higher-order concerns such as the paper’s thesis, overall structure, and source analysis. Less time should be spent on lower-order concerns such as punctuation, grammar, and tense usage. This is not to say that these mistakes should be ignored completely — addressing lower-order concerns locally can be useful for helping a student address a pattern of problems. However, feedback on higher-order concerns will be more useful for the writer than minor, lower-order concerns that they can fix themselves by proofreading.

Students should be placed into either pairs or small groups. As they provide both written and verbal feedback on each other’s work, the instructor should circulate and moderate the different sessions. A helpful practice for keeping students on track is to divide the review into specific increments of time for reading, writing, and verbal discussion.

There are various ways to model student feedback. One common approach is referred to as Praise Question Polish (PQP). In this approach, students are given a robust framework for giving constructive criticism:

  1. Praise: Provide a genuine compliment about the student’s writing, or emphasize something that is being done well. This can be based on a student’s ideas (“The argument you make here is really fresh and creative”) or their approach to structure and organization (“The transitions between body paragraphs are logical and flow well”).
  2. Question: Provide a specific, purposeful question that the writer can use to guide further revision; inquiries should encourage the writer to clarify and refine their ideas (“Is there further evidence to support this claim?”).
  3. Polish: Provide specific suggestions for the writer’s next revision. What are the primary issues that should be addressed? (“I think that your supporting arguments are too broad, a more specific thesis might help create a better structure for your body paragraphs”)

Both students and teachers alike have found peer review to be tedious and unfruitful at times, so don’t be discouraged when faced with inevitable difficulties. Ensure that there is time after the process for students to reflect and for you to gather feedback to improve the next session.

  • Nicole Brodsky (CAS - Rhetoric & Language)
  • Jacqueline Horton (CAS - Rhetoric & Language)

Are you or someone you know finding success with peer review in the classroom? If so, we’d love to hear from you! Email to share your story. 

The University of San Francisco provides access to the Canvas learning management system for students and faculty. The links below provide suggestions on how to incorporate peer review assignments into your hybrid and online teaching.

Not sure where to start? We are here to help! To get help with implementing peer review effectively in your course, contact Instructional Design to request a consultation.

Contact Instructional Technology & Training to schedule a technology training session and access self-guided training materials.