Hari Stephen Kumar is a doctoral candidate in Rhet/Comp at the University of Massachusetts. He teaches first-year writing and is on the Resource Center staff.
A student mutters to me one time in class, “Why am I doing peer reviews for others when I could be working on my own draft?”
A different student tells me, in office hours, “Your feedback was encouraging, but I don’t see why you can’t just tell me what’s wrong with my draft. That’s what teachers have always done for me.”
In an end-of-unit reflection, a student scribbles: “Doing reviews was very different from high school peer editing, where we would just kinda fix up things for each other. I hated doing that. I liked that people asked me actual questions this time. It helped me see where they didn’t understand what I was trying to say.”
Comments like these always spin me for a loop. And these are just from students – I’m not including here all the teacherly voices (both my inner doubts and the conversations I’ve had with other teachers) about our struggles with writing our own feedback on student drafts: how much, how much time, when, what (not) to say, etc.
And to a large extent, all these voices are in my head at the start of every semester, especially during that week when first drafts for Unit 1 are due. That’s the week when four different things have to kick into gear. Most pressing on my own agenda is the sheer reality of 15 (or 30) first drafts that I have to read through, and then write cogent feedback about, and then get that back to students in a timely manner as they work on their second drafts. Then there’s peer review, getting students to read each other’s first drafts and provide useful feedback to their peers, feedback that is more meaningful than just a “I liked it” comment. Finally there’s the students’ own reflective writing and revision work: how to motivate them to make that purposeful turn from 1st draft to 2nd draft, beyond just tweaking sentences and fixing up words? How to get them to reflect on other choices to try, larger changes to make, new purposes to pursue?
Then I realized that many of my students often see this very differently. Every semester I’ve had students say things like: “I’ve never done this many drafts for any paper before. I’ve always just written one draft and then corrected it before handing it in.”
Or: “Revision is basically fixing things that the teacher tells you to fix.”
Or, really worrying: “My friends in other 112 classes aren’t doing this much work!”
When I’ve talked with students at length about their previous experiences, what I’ve found is that for most of them teacher feedback was the most important (and often only) source of input during revision. Working on a paper, for many of them, involved just two pieces of “homework”: draft, and then fix. In my class, then, when they see all the other things they’re supposed to do, it’s easy for them to see those tasks as just “more homework.” And when they don’t see why they’re doing this “extra” work, it can become yet another chore for them to complete, to check off. It becomes just “busy work” for them. Peer reviews become a chore to get through quickly, to skim through and quickly comment on surface-level things. Reflective writing becomes a run-out-the-clock exercise. And, frankly, that generates “busy work” for me too. Teacher feedback becomes the one place where I put most of my effort, convincing myself that if I don’t say something useful then students aren’t going to get it from anywhere else.
To address some of these perceptions, this semester I’ve been working within a structured framework that connects all their “homework” back to the process of revision, back to the ideas of student-as-writer and writer-centered revision. Being in this framework allows my students and myself to always ask: so just why do I want them to do a particular piece of homework? And what should they expect to get out of doing that homework? The framework relies on the following core pieces:
- Writer-centered revision: moving students to a model where they are at the center of revision, where they are motivated to make changes purposefully and proactively.
- Peer reviews and teacher feedback linked to revision goals: providing a broader purpose for gathering different kinds of feedback from different sources.
- Clearer expectations: setting defined goals for what different courses of feedback can provide, mainly to let me focus on specific things in my feedback to them instead of making me feel like I have to say it all.
- Purposeful and specific feedback: varying the kind of peer review activities they do from unit to unit, so that they don’t feel like they’re doing the same thing each time and more importantly to develop writerly skills in soliciting in-depth feedback on their own over the course of the semester.
So during Unit 1, on the day that first drafts were due, I distributed a handout (Contextualizing Feedback within Revision Goals) summarizing the key goals for revision: re-seeing purposes, extending & complicating meaning, discovering choices, and testing out alternatives. I borrowed this list from the Teaching Database but I added a table at the bottom of the handout that showed how they could get help in achieving these revision goals from five different sources for feedback and advice during revision: peers, teacher, self, friends/family, and the WritingCenter. The idea was to show how each of these feedback sources support the revision goals in different ways.
Based on this handout, we then discussed as a class the different kinds of feedback that each of us could contribute to a writer in the class. We came up with three main sets of expectations: one for peer reviews, one for teacher feedback, and one for the writer’s own reflective revision plan. We decided that peer reviews would focus on the “Re-seeing Purposes” and “Discovering Choices” revision goals. For peer reviews I distributed another handout, also borrowed from the Teaching Database, on doing initial draft reviews (How to Do Peer Reviews for Initial Drafts) using the sayback-pointing-questions method. Meanwhile we decided that teacher feedback would focus on the “Extending & Complicating Meaning” goal. And lastly, the writer would focus on “Testing Out Alternatives” in their revision plan.
Having this structured process provided for a seamless Unit 1 feedback experience. Most students got a lot out of both doing and receiving peer reviews. Having the structured sayback-pointing-questions method meant also that students moved beyond a corrective “peer editing” approach and were instead actually asking genuine questions of each other. Meanwhile I was able to keep my own teacher feedback short and focused. In their revision plans, I was gratified to see them incorporating all three sources (their peer reviews, my feedback, and their own ideas) into generating some really specific and significant “alternatives” they wanted to try for their 2nd draft.
This process also allowed for changes initiated by students. When we did a debrief the following week, I asked students to reflect on how they would want to do this process differently for either the next unit or for a different stage of drafting. Many students pointed out that while the sayback-pointing thing may be good for initial drafts, they would prefer more detailed and focused critiques for mid-process drafts. Students who had more experience with college-level peer reviews also pointed out that the sayback-pointing exercise seemed to be overly structured. These were terrific opportunities for me to ask the class to “own” the feedback process more purposefully going forward. So, for the 2nd draft in-class reviews, we adopted a more writer-centered model where each writer asked for specific feedback from their group members. This allowed the review process to be more purposeful, shorter, more focused.
Then, when we moved into Unit 2, we made the review and feedback process even more writer-centered. For first drafts, I asked each writer to provide two cover notes: one for their peers and one for me. In each cover note they were to ask for specific types of feedback geared toward the revision goals. This is where the rubber really hit the road: students wrote very clear and specific notes, asking for different things from me and from their peers. And I could see this making a tangible difference in how students approached revision: their 2nd drafts took on more purposeful shifts, many more students tried more significant changes, and the in-class feedback discussions were much more specific.
Going into Unit 3, now, I am about to ask them to take this to another level still. I’ve been putting them into groups for Units 1 and 2, but for this unit I’ll ask them to choose the sources from whom they want feedback. I’m going to encourage them to choose especially people they know outside of class: their roommates, or a trusted family member, or a peer mentor, or the WritingCenter. That is, I’d like them to approach this the way they might if they were in another class where structured peer reviews are not built into the course. I’m hoping that this allows them to experience and develop more writerly ways of soliciting feedback for non-class/non-graded writing situations. I guess I’ll find out how this goes over the next few weeks!