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#4C16 Panel on Teaching Peer Feedback from #SciWritingURI Scholars

reynoldsThe University of Rhode Island (URI) has been using Eli Review continuously since Spring 2012. Under Nedra Reynolds’s leadership, faculty from across the disciplines have made formative feedback a priority in their courses.

In the beginning, Eli’s team helped URI faculty get started. For example, in 2012-2013 Ingrid Lofgren, professor of Nutrition and Food Science, and Melissa Meeks, now Director of Professional Development for Eli Review, worked together to design a course that guided students in producing their first research article; based on that collaboration, they published an open-source curriculum on science writing.

Now, URI is teaching Eli what’s possible when a few faculty across departments share a vision for creating and assessing a feedback-rich culture. In 2014, a new core group started working on a research project investigating how science writers get better at giving feedback.

We interviewed Nedra to get the scoop ahead of their presentation at #4C16: “Eli Review as Strategic Action,” E.30, Thursday 4/7, 4:45 PM – 6:00 PM.

We love getting tweets from the #sciwriteuri group as they give feedback and assess helpful comments. What’s the goal and shape of this initiative/program?

Nedra Reynolds:  We have a 3-year grant from the National Science Foundation to give graduate students in science a solid background in rhetoric, starting with the first semester of their graduate education.Through coursework, workshops, internships, and a Graduate Writing Center, students will engage in habitual writing, multiple genres, and frequent review. The goal is that graduate student science writers will be better prepared to address and engage members of the public in their research, so we want to improve their academic writing as well as their public writing, and to acknowledge the reality that many graduate students in the sciences will work for non-academic organizations where their writing will differ considerably from scholarly journal articles.

Who’s on the team, and what are their roles?

Nedra: Two colleges and three departments are represented on this team, and we think NSF really liked our cross-disciplinary collaboration; we have faculty in Nutrition and Food Sciences, Natural Resources Science, and Writing and Rhetoric. Our lead PI is Ingrid Lofgren and co-PIs include myself, Scott McWilliams, Nancy Karraker, Caroline Gottschalk Druschke. We also have a graduate student this semester, Jenna Morton-Aiken, who is contributing mostly in the area of assessment. Starting in the fall and for the remainder of the grant, we have recruited a graduate research assistant, Erin Harrington, who will combine her Writing Center experience (from Oregon State) with her research interests in citizen science. In this pilot year, we have all done a bit of everything, but as the grant kicks in officially in Fall 2016, we will have more discrete roles. Caroline, as a rhetorician and scientist, is teaching two of the courses that will probably have the most impact on students’ rhetorical training. My role has been the Eli leader; Scott has invaluable experience working with NSF. We also have other partners who are contributing assessment knowledge and scicomm training.

What’s the most exciting thing you’re seeing right now among faculty and students?

Nedra: After two full-day workshops, both faculty and graduate students reported (informally) how much they appreciate the structure that Eli offers; by that, I think they mean the different response types and the prompts that an instructor or review coordinator creates. Some students commented that in previous experiences with peer review, they never knew quite what to say about someone else’s writing, but Eli provides explicit prompts–based on criteria–that give reviewers confidence in their feedback. Despite the differences across disciplines or specializations, students felt confident giving each other feedback. Both faculty and students were impressed with the idea of replacing a LONG spell of “Writing” (in isolation, without much support) with a series of “Draft-Review-Revise-Repeat” chunks. Faculty are most excited, I think, by the realization that they can “chunk” their assignments, or ask students to review and revise sections rather than entire documents, and several graduate students have asked to arrange their own review sessions with their peers in their labs.

Caroline Druschke indicated that frequent peer review is integral to URI’s “high investment model of training students in the sciences.” How did you build consensus around the importance not just of assigning peer learning but also of teaching effective feedback?

Nedra:  Our consensus-building is ongoing, but effective feedback is part of the rhetorical training we are trying to provide:  what is the situation, audience, purpose, genre? Not many of our participants have paid much attention to feedback and its importance, so I think proceeding inductively is helpful: at the end of a review cycle, looking together at a number of comments, perhaps for the same prompt, can start to build users’ shared values about what truly useful feedback looks like. While each writer’s needs are different, most of them will agree that effusive praise is not what they are looking for, and that specific, concrete comments are golden. In trying to understand the importance of effective feedback, It’s also important to ask writers to use some agency in this process:  feedback becomes more effective when writers learn to ask for the kind of help they want or identify where they are stuck. Faculty and review coordinators (who may be faculty or graduate science students) seem very receptive to the idea that writing is hard work no matter how many papers you may have published.

In your #4C16 panel description, you say:

[T]his panel is not designed to prove that ELI Review “improves student writing.” Instead, this panel aims to guide writing instructors, administrators, and researchers on how to use ELI Review productively for rapid instructor intervention, WAC initiatives, and writing research.

Most people think the proof is in better drafts. Why is your focus primarily on instructor interventions?

Nedra: We might find, eventually, that we have enough evidence to claim that using Eli results in improved student writing, but for this CCCCs panel, we want to demonstrate how flexible Eli can be for instructor intervention “in the betweens” of drafting, reviewing, and revising. The Eli feature to Conceal Names for Projector, for example, offers a way to share with students everything from Task Progress totals to all of the feedback that individual writers receive. When a student has rated a comment with 5 stars and added it to her Revision Plan, we can talk about that comment as a whole class and identify what features it has or compare it to other comments. All of this sharing can be done while protecting identities of the writers and reviewers, and that seems to make everyone more comfortable.  What we are trying to model is that review coordinators or instructors can tailor lesson plans or create review prompts based on trends they may be seeing in Feedback Received or Feedback Given.

Your #4C16 talk is titled “Eli Review as Strategic Action.” That’s a big promise given #4C16act. Why make a specific writing tool—and Eli in particular—central to your program?

Nedra:  The three legs holding up our SciWrite program are habitual writing, multiple genres, and frequent review. Eli lets us emphasize frequent review, of course, but also habitual writing and even multiple genres–because review writing is a genre!  It may be a specific writing tool, but Eli has such flexibility and adaptability–and so many great resources for all users–we couldn’t really imagine delivering this writing-intensive program without it. While we still need more faculty adopters, the graduate science students are wild about Eli, I think because they are beginning to realize that even experienced writers rely on effective feedback.

#4C16 Panel on Teaching Peer Feedback from #SciWritingURI Scholars was published to the Eli Review Blog in the categories Presentations, Research.

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