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Monday, February 2, 2009

Making student feedback more useful

I mentioned a few weeks ago that I'm teaching a new writing-intensive course for econ majors this semester. It's an entirely new course and I'm flying a bit blind but tonight was the second meeting and so far, so good. The point of the course is for students to develop their ability to 'think like economists' by learning to 'write like economists'. But since the vast majority of these students will not go on to graduate work, the writing they will be doing consists primarily of short reports, similar to what they may be expected to produce when they go get real jobs.

The way I've structured the course is that each week, half the class will be writing (there was 23 students enrolled) and the other half will be "critical readers". I wanted to have them do peer reviews because a) I believe that thinking about what makes someone else's writing good or bad can be helpful for improving one's own writing, and b) let's face it, I just don't want to have to read all their first drafts. But from the beginning, I've been concerned about how to guide the students so that their feedback would actually be useful. Whenever I have tried this in the past, I've found that students have a hard time critiquing their peers' work in a way that is remotely useful - they are either too nice, too harsh, too vague, or simply wrong.

Then I found an article by Linda Nilson in College Teaching (vol.51, no.1), "Improving Student Peer Feedback." Nilson suggests that part of the problem is the types of questions and instructions that we often give students to think about when doing their peer reviews. For example: Are the ideas clearly presented? Is the paper organized in a logical way? How well has the writer supported his/her argument? As scholars, these are reasonable questions, the sort that we ask ourselves when we are reading papers in our field. But for students, they require making a judgment about a peer that many students don't have the training, or maturity, to make impartially.

As an alternative, Nilson suggests having students perform tasks or answer questions that do not require a judgment or opinion but "merely" require that student read carefully and critically. For example: Highlight any passages that you had to read more than once to understand what the writer was saying. In one or two sentences, state in your own words what you think the writer's position is. What do you find most compelling about the paper/speech? As a member of the intended audience, what questions would you have after reading this paper?

I've decided to give this approach a try. For each writing assignment, the half of the class that is acting as 'critical readers' is given a list of tasks or questions that they must complete, rather than general feedback. I'm curious to see whether the students (either as writers or readers) find this more helpful. If anyone has had experience with this sort of "objective" peer feedback, please feel free to share in the comments!

1 comment:

  1. Peer editing and feedback is tricky, no doubt about it. In my first-year class students write four formal essays and for each of these there is a class period devoted to peer review of an early draft. I'm fully on board with review of early drafts, but I've become skeptical about peer review workshops. For as much direction as my students receive in the process of peer review (specific questions to address particular aspects of the paper, responding to the writer's questions, checklists), many of them still come away frustrated that their peers don't read their drafts critically and make good suggestions for improvement.

    I feel bad for the conscientious students that use the workshops in good faith. Since peer review is a skill we are attempting to build among students, I can't do away with the workshop, and I agree it's a skill worth practicing. But I frequently get students who want me to review their drafts after the peer review session, so peer review is not much of a time saver for me.

    I like the suggestion to make peer review about objective measures -- this certainly makes the reviewer's task easier -- but it seems like objective review that is too objective may sidestep some of the important writing skills to which we want students to be attuned (argument, support, analysis).


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