What do you think when your teacher asks you to review another student's essay?

"I don't feel qualified to grade someone else's essay," one of my students once said.  "I'm just learning how to write one."  I'm sure many of the other students were thinking the same thing.  Their peer reviews showed it.  And it's true, they do not know the intricacies of writing essays.

So why would a teacher ask you to do a peer review?  It's not, as you might think, to make her workload lighter.

 

 

Improving your essay --

 

Let's look at the act of writing (for anyone -- professional writers, as well as amateurs) and what it entails.  Most writing disconnects the writer from the reader.  Let's say you are reading the how-to manual to set up your new DVD player and integrate it with your new HD TV.  What if there was a point you didn't understand?  Could you go to the writer and say, "What do you mean by this?"  Of course not.  The writer is not present.  His manual must say everything clearly enough for communication to happen.

On the flip side, let's say your history teacher tells you to write a research paper on the Battle of Gettysburg.  If you are like most students, you will go through the process of writing, researching, putting your notes together, writing the introduction, etc., until it's done (often all in one night).  Then you turn in the paper, saying a little prayer that it will get a good grade.  And when your teacher grades it, if he's a typical teacher, he will take it home to grade and not be able to ask you any questions about it while he's grading it.  You just get a grade, with perhaps some feedback in the form of lots of red marks on the essay.  But that feedback is too late:  you already got the grade.

The fact that the writer and reader are not together on any piece of writing is what I call the "disconnect."  Turning in your paper without getting feedback is a little like putting a message in a bottle and throwing it into the ocean.  Or to use an analogy more appropriate to New Mexico, it's a little like putting a message in a helium-filled balloon and letting it go.  You never know if anyone is going to get your communication, much less understand it. 

 

 
Graphic Designs

In my face-to-face classes, I use an activity called Graphic Designs to illustrate this fact.  You can demonstrate the same thing with the help of a friend or a loved one.  First you will need some kind of building blocks or Legos.  If you don't have something like that, you can make your own pieces by cutting up two pieces of paper into geometrical shapes (with both pieces of paper together as you cut.  Then you have duplicate sets of the same geometrical shapes.)  Then you need something to block your view.  I've used a children's hardback book -- big and thin -- and put it on edge like a wall between the two participants. 

Be sure that you and your partner both have duplicates of the same building blocks.  One of you (let's say your partner) constructs something with the building blocks, hiding it from you behind the book (if you're using geometrical shapes, he constructs a design).  Then he tells you how to build the same thing.  He can't see how you're doing because you're doing it on your side of the book.  And this is crucial:  you cannot ask him any questions.  This replicates the message-in-a-bottle situation.  When you are done, you can take the book away and see how you both did.

Then do it again, only this time with you building and telling your partner how -- so you can get the idea of how it is for the writer.  The partner cannot ask you questions through this round.

You'll end up doing this same process two more times, for a total of four rounds.  This time, however, when you are the "reader" -- building the construction according to your partner's instructions -- you can ask questions and clarify his instructions.  (The two of you still cannot see what the other is doing while the round is going on.)  And when you are the "writer," your partner can ask you questions.

Most of my students are surprised when the communication isn't exact.  They figure that when they say "on top" their partner knows exactly what they mean.  It's an eye-opener for them to realize that, even when they can ask questions, there are mistakes and differences in meaning understood.  But at least when their partner asks questions, they know what wasn't understood clearly.  This is feedback. 
 

 
Real-life readers

Even professional writers have readers that are not professional writers.  After all, who are they writing for?  Not other writers.  Nor are they writing for English teachers.  They are writing for average people -- people like you and your peers.  They want feedback from the average reader.

That's the kind of feedback you are fully qualified to give -- much more so than an English teacher.  As the reader, you can let the writer know if something is confusing, or if she didn't give you enough explanation, or if something in her essay offended you.  At the same time, you can tell her what you like about her essay -- what seems interesting to you -- or what bores you silly.

A teacher would only be guessing at those things.  A teacher tends to picks on everything -- because he's trained himself to see every possibility that might be confusing.  Often a teacher gives you good feedback on grammar, but not so good on the content, the information itself. 

Still there's another, more important, reason I ask you to do peer reviews.

 

 
Understanding the reader's perspective --

You learn more by evaluating your peers' essays than you learn from your peers' evaluations of your essay.  Studies show it, and I have seen it. 

When you write, you have something pictured in your mind, and you try to convey that something.  But every time you read your own writing, you don't see what you wrote; instead, you see what you wanted to write.  So you really don't know how effective your own writing is.  Reviewing another student's essay is where you get to be on the outside of the idea to be communicated and see what's working or what's not working by how well you get the idea.

Because you can see what's going on better in other people's writing, your chances of having "X-ray vision" and being able to see the skeleton or structure of it are greater.  As you learn key techniques, you'll be more able to recognize them in other people's writing than in your own.  Part of the learning is practice at recognizing.

 

 
How you do it

 

 

 

There are as many ways to give feedback as there are ways to write essays. 

In general, you want to start with a positive note.  Tell the writer what you like about her essay.  Be specific.  It seems like you didn't really think about it if you say, "I like your essay" or "I like how you write."  Say "this (quote it) is my favorite sentence."  Or "I especially enjoyed your example of what happened to you in the second paragraph." 

Then, point out these two areas:  1. anything that's confusing and 2. whether there's too much information (it wanders) OR there's not enough information.  DON'T correct the writer.  Remember, you are not qualified to grade an essay.  Instead, phrase it as questions.  "What do you mean by this sentence?"  "What did you do then?"  "Why did you put this in?"  "What about white people?"  These questions then tell the writer that her information isn't complete.

Especially don't correct her grammar.  I've found that students who "correct" each other's grammar often have it completely wrong.  They are changing what's already correct.

As you learn more about an essay, you might want to integrate what you are learning into your feedback.  Again, ask it as questions.  "I think that your first sentence is your thesis statement.  Is that right?"  "Why do you have only one point of support?"

Finally, you can make suggestions on content if any occur to you.  Things like "You might add that story that's been in the news lately as more support for your topic."

 

 
 

It's very important to be entirely honest.  And to work at it.  Otherwise, your comments have no meaning.  (I can't tell you how I hate when people tell me, with a shrug, "It's good.")  Say how it affects you and don't worry about how the writer can fix it.  That's his job.

Finally, don't forget the praise.

 
  This page was last revised May 18, 2010, by Connie Gulick.  
     

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