The Power of Peers
In Writing Portfolios: What Teachers Learn from Student Self-Assessment, Kim Johnson-Bogart wonderfully describes --through her students own words-- the power and benefits of peer review.
The Power of Peers
Students' portfolios and reflective essays have also taught me that they learn from each other and want to contribute to each other. They want to be useful. And what I find is that learning from one another and learning from themselves are mutually reinforcing. One student made the following comments about reading his classmates' drafts:
Reading other peoples' papers helped me to develop my analytic reading skills. It was sometimes hard to stay focused in reading other peoples' papers because I would often find myself saying "Why didn't I do that?" or "Did I also make that mistake?" Reading other peoples' papers served to break the sort of mind block with which one typically views one's own paper. After reading another person's paper, as unrelated as it may have been to mine, I could look at my own paper with a fresh perspective. I think the reason for this is because in reading somebody else's composition, one must identify with the writer and see the issue as they do, thus breaking out of your own mental cocoon. (Derek)
Derek demonstrates that he values his effort to step into another writer's perspective as a way of learning about his own writing. He shows how this shift gives him valuable practice as a reader, practice that he can employ in reading his own work-in effect, becoming a "fresh" reader of his own writing.
Another student focuses on the reciprocal nature of this process:
For me, peer review was an excellent way to work on our essays. Not only do I feel that my classmates' evaluations were important for my learning, I believe that my comments were valuable to them. My letter essays reflect a careful reading of the essays, as well as including a thoughtful discussion. I tried to approach the author with care-by being sensitive I was able to point out both the weak and the strong areas in their papers. Looking at the way in which other people write helped my own writing as well. I was able to learn from their mistakes, while at the same time I was able to see how to improve my writing based on their strengths. (Christina)
As she explains the value of being both writer and critic, Christina articulates the care that I find most students take as they respond to one another. They want to be critical in positive ways because that is what they want back. Thus, provided focused opportunities to take the role of both writer and reader, students mutually create the positive grounds for critical discussion.
The next example is representative of students' desire to contribute to one another in meaningful ways and to take an active, responsible role in promoting each other's learning:
Selections #5 and #6 [in the portfolio] are overnight letters and peer reviews of different essays . . . selections #5 and #6 helped me realize I enjoy posing questions to other writers that complicate their thinking and writing, just as I enjoy peer reviews and specific questions that push me to complicate my own writing and thinking. (Priya)
Two things are important to me here. First, Priya wants to substantively affect her fellow students' work. She wants to heighten the stakes in their dialogue to their mutual benefit. And secondly, Priya reveals that because together they are faced with responding to an essay assignment, students share an understanding of their writing situation that teachers do not. For me, this means creating meaningful opportunities for students to work with each other, and creating an environment in which they are motivated to produce for one another. Whereas I have always had students look at one another's first drafts, I now ask them to work with each other at the problem-definition stage, and I ask them to read and respond critically to one another's revised essays. Students find this last step particularly illuminating because they follow one other person's work from inception to completion, playing an active-respectfully and critically responsive-role throughout. No amount of general talk and examples from outside the class on my part could approach the gains they report in their reflective essays.
It's worth noting that Ms. Johnson-Bogart, in addition to teaching students how to do peer review also instructs them to write reflective essays of the type she quotes from. This combination --close reading and commenting on peers' writing and close examination and reflection on one's writing and writing work done in a course gives students useful tools for becoming aware of how writing works and how they work as writers.