Instructor Insights

Facilitating Peer-Review Workshops

In this section, Jared Berezin shares his approach for engaging students in effective peer-review workshops. He addresses how he prepares them for the workshops and shares advice he provides students to guide them through the process. Finally, he discusses how he hopes to improve future peer-review workshops.

Preparing Students for Effective Peer-Review Workshops

Peer-review workshops can help students improve their reading, writing, and speaking, as well as help build community in the classroom. Of course, as with any human interaction, peer-review experiences can range from being positive and productive to negative and unhelpful. As a professional science and technology writer, I’ve had both valuable and unsatisfying peer-review experiences.

To help students prepare for an effective peer-review workshop, prior to the first session I share my own experiences, and brainstorm with the class about the possible benefits and potential pitfalls of the peer-review process. In addition, although peer-review is built into this particular course, I lead a discussion about the value of peer-review in the workplace, and ways to solicit peer feedback in a professional, non-classroom setting.

Guiding Students through the Process

In peer-review workshops, readers tend to provide 70% praise and 30% criticism, in large part because giving and receiving criticism is difficult and sometimes uncomfortable. This is particularly common among students, since they do not self-identify as “experts” in the field or even experts of the specific assignment, which lessens their confidence in their own observations. I encourage students to flip the typical feedback ratio to provide 70% critical questioning and at most 30% praise.

Another overarching piece of guidance for authors and readers is to focus on the larger, global issues in the drafts, rather than editing sentences. For many readers, it’s easier to focus on the little things, because they can be commented on with confidence and fixed quickly. Instead, I’d rather students use the precious time in the classroom to discuss the more difficult and nebulous issues within a text. For each peer-review session, I write a list of questions on the board that I would like them to consider during their conversation of each draft, drawing from the assignment and the concepts we’ve discussed in class. Although readers focus on global issues in the drafts, I ask readers to provide evidence for all comments by referring directly to the text. Referencing single moments in the text can allow readers and authors to engage in a concrete discussion of ways to improve the overall draft, rather than speaking in vague abstractions. Being honest and specific is also critical to avoid any confusion or misinterpretation during the discussion.

I advise authors to listen carefully, take notes, and ask specific questions in order to elicit specific answers. One specific strategy involves student-authors asking readers to paraphrase the text as a way of gauging comprehension. For example, if an author asks their readers, “Do you understand what I’m saying in the 3rd paragraph?”, this could result in yes/no answers. Instead, the author could ask a question that elicits paraphrasing, such as: “What do you think I’m saying in the 3rd paragraph?” This open-ended question requires readers to use their own words to explain what they have read, which allows the author to assess whether the reader’s understanding aligns with the intent and desired meaning.

Lastly, after each peer-review workshop, I lead a discussion with the class to reflect on the experience, and pose questions such as:

  • How did the process go?
  • Any challenges to conducting peer review?
  • Any key takeaways or insights after hearing how your peers read your work?
  • Was any of the feedback you received surprising?
  • How will you deal with conflicting feedback that you received?
  • What specific goals do you have for your revision?
  • What specific goals do you have ahead of the next peer-review session to improve the experience?

Improving Future Workshops

"In peer-review workshops, readers tend to provide 70% praise and 30% criticism, in large part because giving and receiving criticism is difficult and sometimes uncomfortable."
—Jared Berezin

The peer-review process in this class can certainly be improved. Two years ago, students let me know that it would have been helpful to have more time to read the drafts before the workshop. In prior years they had only one evening to read a few papers, so last term I allocated two days. This was a positive change that the students appreciated, and increased the students’ preparedness and the quality of discussions.

Looking ahead, I’d like to provide students with even more targeted questions to consider during workshops. In other communication-intensive engineering classes at MIT, I’ve been experimenting with a heavily guided peer-review process, in which authors “show” their readers where they perform certain rhetorical moves in a text (e.g. justifying the value of their article), after which their peers read that specific paragraph, and share with the author what they have just read in their own words. This approach might translate well to 21W.035. For example, I could ask authors to specify a moment in which they used a particular rhetorical appeal, and the readers would then share their responses to that moment of text. This approach ensures that the reader receives tangible feedback, and helps decrease a readers’ sense of feeling overwhelmed with critiquing an entire paper all at once.

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