Emphasizing Peer Review

In 1956, Harold Bloom presented his now-infamous original taxonomy of learning objectives that educators used for years to build courses and curriculum. This original taxonomy established a hierarchy of mental activity, placing tasks like knowing and understanding concepts below (as support for) more complicated tasks like analyzing and synthesizing ideas. At top of Bloom’s original taxonomy sat evaluation—what Bloom claimed was the most complex mental process one can engage in. I suspect any educator who has spent a few hours evaluating student writing can attest to the mental exhaustion it can cause.

When I was a K-12 educator, I was often attuned to what I saw as the call inherent in this taxonomy: it’s a challenge to move our students upward from what they can do to what may be new, foreign, or uncomfortable. Trouble is, students need to successfully manage the lower level before they can achieve the higher ones. Students can’t, for instance, analyze something they don’t first understand. If teachers introduce new content to students and expect students to analyze or synthesize that material, the students must first be given the opportunity to know and understand the material in question. A lot more needs to happen if we ask students to evaluate material.

This hierarchical structure becomes problematic when writing instructors ask students to engage in peer review. When students write papers for a class, they are usually exploring some new idea, learning, understanding, analyzing, or synthesizing the concept introduced in their course. Student papers, then, serve to document their performance with one or more of these goals. These papers can be rough and experimental as students work to incorporate new ideas into their existing corpus of knowledge. If students are asked to peer-review one another’s work in these conditions, they are being asked to evaluate—the highest level of Bloom—their peers’ demonstration of lower-level skills. When students struggle with new learning, their evaluation of that learning can rest on a very shaky foundation. How confidently can they evaluate someone else’s analysis of ideas they themselves were only recently working to understand?

Instead of struggling with the higher-level issues that could lead to real growth in the areas we ask our students to explore, they often take the more familiar and comfortable route, evaluating what they do understand: sentence structure, clarity, and other localized edits. Despite calls to emphasize global revision in the writing process, students rarely have a need to engage in it: standardized tests allot a short time for students to crank out a single draft on a spontaneous topic. Procrastination causes students to have only a single evening in which to create a finished paper due the next day. When our students are asked to write five-paragraph essays as a solution to every writing problem they encounter from fourth through tenth grade, there’s little reason for them to adjust their writing processes at all. What works in twenty minutes on a standardized test, they are told, is the only kind of writing they ever need to do. No matter how often we tell students to revise, if our expectations for their work don’t challenge them to write differently, they will have no reason to.

Then, when students move to college and writing for standardized tests becomes a thing of the past, they face a sort of creative culture-shock, in which their writing goals are determined not by pre-specified structures but on the clarity and insight of their thinking. It’s easy for those of us who teach first-year writing to forget how different our classes’ writing goals and situations may be from what our students did before.

Because we ask our students to do a different kind of writing when standardized tests are no longer the goal, students may be unaccustomed to the expectations we hold (aside from clarity and structure). With respect to these new expectations, our students begin at the bottom of Bloom’s taxonomy—they must first know what we expect and understand those expectations before they can explicitly and consciously meet them. When we ask students to peer-review, we want them to focus on the aspects of an assignment that are new—the elements they are starting to learn and least-qualified to assess.

This semester, my schedule was overloaded with conferences and other travel, and I knew I wouldn’t have time to grade every paper my students wrote. I took some inspiration from the design of cMOOC courses and decided to use peer review as the essence of formative evaluation for my course. The idea, which I’ve elaborated on before, was to have students become more critical of their own work by comparing it with the work of others during peer review and identify what worked better for one student’s paper than for another.

It didn’t entirely work.

As I expected, students were hesitant to state that one person’s work was worse than another’s. Working in groups of five, one student expressed concern that the lowest-ranked student would be perceived as “getting an F”. I had to explain that it’s possible to have five degrees of an A before she was comfortable. (Behold the lasting effects of grade inflation.) Ultimately, her group never felt comfortable ranking and instead chose to arbitrarily list the members of the group and give what they thought was constructive feedback for each writer. Their efforts worked for them, and each member of the group did receive feedback, but they stopped viewing one another’s work as examples of how to do their own work better. The comparative element went missing.

I felt a meaningful growth and learning opportunity was lost. The thing they feared—telling a student that their work didn’t measure up—can help highlight differences that the student not be aware of without the help of the group. Can writing improve if all we do is discuss its strengths? The members of this group had worked together the previous semester in another class of mine, so they were more comfortable together than most. But as soon as I asked them to create a pecking order, they balked. They didn’t want to tell someone that their work was sub-standard, even though the whole point of getting students into groups was to help ensure everyone’s work was up to par. The students had a fear of being critical.

Interestingly, they ended up adopting a bit of a simplified rank, despite their objections, for most of their assignments. One student in the group was more mature and sophisticated in his writing than the others, able to convincingly articulate his ideas when other students might have struggled to sound confident. Another member of their group had trouble balancing his commitments, and he started running behind in his work about midway through the semester. He didn’t turn in many of his papers in time for peer review. When I asked them to rank their group’s work, the mature student was invariably in spot #1; the overwhelmed student was invariably in spot #5. And instead of foc
using on what the papers in positions 2–4 needed in order to be equivalent in effectiveness to paper #1, the group treated each document as an isolated case, giving generalized feedback on clarity. The sense of comparison was lost, and with it, a good source of inspiration for improvement.

One of the texts we use for this course, Greene and Lidinsky’s From Inquiry to Academic Writing, includes a chapter that covers issues of peer review. I assigned it far too late in the course, failing to see how important the conversation was for every assignment we did, and not just the academic research paper that ends the course. I have learned that I need to explicitly teach strategies for effective peer review for three significant and important reasons:

  1. College freshmen have little experience with revision and thus need help learning how to manage substantial changes to their writing.
  2. Students raised on standardized tests are accustomed to an anonymous or unknown reader of texts designed only to prove mastery, rather than accomplish a social purpose. Writers therefore feel disempowered and dehumanized by the disconnect between their efforts and the other-ness of those who assess them. Good peer-review comments require students to hold authority regarding the improvement of a text; this authority is completely foreign to students in a standardized-testing environment.
  3. Students accustomed to inflated grades need to learn the benefits of critical commentary rather than blatant and unqualified compliments.

By the time they reach college, our students should be functioning at the higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy. We can help by providing instruction that targets evaluation as an outcome. We should also be teaching our students to become independent learners. What revision process better encapsulates independence than peer review?

Related: My previous post explored how teachers can more effectively implement peer review in our own classroom writing practices.

[Cartoon image courtesy of Gideon Burton on Flickr; taxonomy image from Richard C. Overbaugh at Old Dominion.]