Monday, April 15, 2013

The Awkward Peer Review

Peer review is a common practice many teachers support because it is a useful way to reinforce the writing process in their classes.

But what do students think about peer review?

In Linda Nilson's "Improving Student Peer Feedback,"she finds that "apparently most students are loath to find fault with one another's products," and that the largest problem in the peer review process is "the intrusion of student's emotion into the evaluative process."

Nilson also uncovers the "if I do it to them, they will do it to me" phenomenon during the peer review settings, which I believe is the biggest motivation behind student resistance to peer review.

As a student who has experienced the peer review process many times, I find that Nilson is pulling on the heart strings of this issue. Fear and vulnerability.

Some students fear peer review will actually work as it is intended, and the last thing many students want are negative remarks from a friend.

Every student who has insecurities about their writing will most likely find themselves faced with the idea that even their peers will discover that they are faking it. In fact, I would go so far to say that most students believe it is harder to fool their fellow students through writing than it is the instructor.

When students are assigned peer review, they have that awkward moment when anxiety begins to rise as they think about who their peer/s might be. If they get to choose, they grab the hand of most familiar student/s in the classroom. Safety first.

If they are paired with an unfamiliar student, or a group of students, the students will routinely make an unspoken contract of "fake it until we get out of here." It is at this moment that peer reviews begin to fail to produce anything worthwhile.

After the students are grouped together, murmurs of insecurities might fill the classroom too. For example, in an effort to mask my writing flaws during peer reviews, I have said, "this is a really rough draft," and "I'm sure yours much better than mine," or, "I don't even know what I'm writing about here." Even the most apathetic student writers can be pushed outside of their comfort zones.

Students will often empathize with their peers during the odd predicament of the peer review and follow the unspoken rule religiously in order to produce a peer evaluations that has little merit and no sincere criticisms, all for the sake of protecting their own feelings. I make this claim because almost every undergraduate peer evaluation I have experienced has produced similar results, and I argue (as does Nilson) that it mostly has to do with fear and vulnerability.
As a graduate student who works in a student staffed writing center, I see daily how peer reviews can be extremely helpful. But even in this setting, when students volunteer to have their work reviewed in the writing center, they sometimes tremble, often drop their shoulders and sigh heavily, and on some occasions even cry.

Still, I  believe that a classroom peer review setting has many benefits. However, student fear, vulnerability, and anxiety are deeply rooted variables that must be considered and discussed in the classroom in order to initiate a worthwhile peer review.

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