Students and Faculty Discuss Peer Review

by Rebekah Rosenfeld and Helen Chmura

On February 20th, 2007, students and faculty gathered to discuss the role of peer review in writing assignments. Over dinner faculty explained the reasons for including peer review in their courses, and students reflected on the effectiveness of peer review in developing their writing.

Student-faculty dialogues have become a tradition in Swarthmore's Writing Program. The first dialogue was held in Spring 2006 and focused on professor feedback strategies when commenting on student papers. The dialogue asked participants to share their experiences giving and receiving feedback and invited them to brainstorm avenues for improvement.

Both dialogues stem from ongoing research on the role of writing in Swarthmore's curriculum. The first was an outgrowth of the Why Writing project, and this year's dialogue furthers Swarthmore's ongoing goal of critically examining and improving its curricula while fostering collaboration between students and faculty.

One topic of interest this year was the form that peer review takes both in and out of the classroom. Faculty reported using discussions, online reading responses, and in-class paper exchanges while students spoke of trips to the Writing Center and one- on-one conversations with friends.

Both students and faculty agreed that creating the 'right' environment was crucial for the success of peer review. Participants considered how dynamics change when reviews are conducted in groups of three instead of pairs and discussed whether professors should organize feedback groups based on students' past writing performance.

"I'm glad that teachers are thinking about these issues," said senior Corey Baker. "My impression is that peer editing is good for both students and teachers."

Equally important were questions about the goal of peer review. Students described the need to balance their attention between improving the mechanics of a paper and workshopping the argument and ideas.

Students candidly discussed the nervousness that some harbor about peer review; students new to the process sometimes shy away from participating because of fear of receiving negative criticism on their work. Experience with peer review generally makes them more comfortable with the process, they explained.

Faculty described a number of ways that they work to familiarize students with peer review. Some employ it frequently, in order to build student confidence. Other faculty collect examples of each students' work and submit them, nameless, to their class for group evaluation.

Participants walked away with new ideas about how to integrate peer review into coursework. "It was helpful to learn how other faculty approach peer review," said Art History Professor Tomoko Sakomura. The Writing Program looks forward to hosting another dialogue in 2008 and welcomes suggestions for topics from both students and faculty.