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Military Grade Review Prompts

Lt. Col. Paul JonstonAs Eli Review’s director of professional development for the past year, I’ve worked closely with instructors at more than twenty institutions to implement a culture of feedback in their classrooms and programs. Teachers share assignments and formative data with me so that we can make sense of it together. I regularly meet colleagues through their assignments.

My consultation with LTC Paul Johnston, US Army at TRADOC Analysis Center (TRAC), began with a trip through Eli’s archives. In 2011-2012, Paul taught at the United States Military Academy at West Point with Mike Edwards (now at Washington State and still using Eli). Before we spoke on the phone, I tried to get a sense of Paul’s priorities and style from his previous composition and advanced composition courses.

From his reviews, I could tell that Paul had a keen insight into writing pedagogy and distinctive style of communicating with students. When we talked, I learned that  Paul has an M.A. in Rhetoric and Composition from Penn State University (among other degrees) and four years teaching experience. Most importantly, he understands the habits writers need to develop to be successful.

Paul’s teaching philosophy boils down to helping writers face two hurdles: fear of the blank page and fear of public writing. In his view, both hurdles can be overcome by developing or reinforcing good habits and using apps to help scaffold the process.

Fear of Cured by Writing Habits Scaffolding App
Blank Page Daily Writing 750 Words
Public Writing Rapid Feedback Cycles Eli Review

By writing three pages every day, writers in his courses learn to push past their fears and think their way into saying something—anything. By sharing some of that writing in anonymous reviews in Eli, writers learn to give and receive feedback. Writing publicly but under the protection of anonymity makes audience real, responsive, and helpful.

Talking with him about his teaching philosophy made me think more about the hurdles and fears that keep writers from engaging in peer learning. Looking through the review exercises that he developed at West Point with Mike Edwards helped me see how a lighter touch, more humor, and greater emotional connection create space for authentic feedback.

Below are several examples of review prompts from Paul & Mike’s 2011-2012 courses and a brief annotation. You can recreate these prompts in Eli Review using the different review response types.

Asking reviewers to respond as readers

Likert scale (choose one), prompt: While reading this paper, I was most:

  • Distracted by your prose.
  • Distracted by your problems with correctness.
  • Bored.
  • Excited or interested.
  • Confused.
  • Disappointed.

Why I like it: Real audiences have real emotions. This question doesn’t let readers or writers off the hook. They’ve got to work from the assumption that writing engages readers’ feelings. For reviewers, owning up to your emotions on this list is easy enough. For writers, revising for pathos in light of those reported emotions will also be fairly straightforward.

Set up peer review to sound like peer review

Trait identification (choose many), prompt: Select as many as you find applicable:

  • Clear intent or focus
  • Interesting
  • Controversial!
  • Meh–you are not arguing a disputable point
  • Mostly opinion
  • BOO: Mostly facts
  • Good idea

Why I like it: Who hasn’t wanted to say “Boo: Mostly facts” on a student paper? This is a checklist of simple gut reactions. Instead of using the language of a formal rubric, it uses descriptions students (and some cool instructors) would write in the margin of a draft.

Trait identification (choose many), prompt: How effectively does the author use evidence? Think of the acronym SEAR (Situate, Embed, Analyze, and Relate) to describe an effective technique for working with evidence at the paragraph level.

  • Quoted material does not exist.
  • Quoted material is absent-mindedly dropped in.
  • Random or haphazard use of quoted material but not quite successfully converted to persuasive evidence.
  • AHH! Quoted material overwhelms and dominates this paper. Run away!
  • Quoted material is introduced, contextualized, and explained very well.
  • Balanced use of direct quotes, paraphrase, and summary, citing all three forms of evidence, and making sense of all sources.

Why I like itThis question makes students assess the balance of source material against the writer’s own thinking. Too many sources without enough of the writer’s explanations and connections result in patchwriting. Too much of the writer’s thinking without enough source material results in unsupported arguments. Detecting the balance gives readers a concrete way to help the writer use sources effectively.

I like this prompt too because the instructions embed clear revision steps, making it easy for writers to correct any imbalance. SEAR as an acronym for integrating sources gives reviewers things to look for and writers something to write toward. Plus, it has a cool origin story.

Mike Edwards invented the SEAR mnemonic while on an 8-mile run training for the Army 10-Miler. In conjunction with Joseph Bizup’s BEAM (Background, Exhibit, Argument, Method), Mike tells students that SEAR often means they can spend nearly an entire paragraph with one quotation:

  • Situating the quotation in the context of the issue at hand and in terms of the author’s rhetorical situation;
  • Embedding it into their own sentence structures and language so it’s not just a dumped quotation;
  • Analyzing it by explaining what each part of it means; and
  • Relating it to the larger point of the paragraph and essay.

I can’t wait to say to my students, “SEAR it into your minds, people! No dropped quotes! Ever!” Asking reviewers to look for SEAR reinforces the strategy and helps them see how important it is to surround a quote with the writer’s own thinking.

Ask reviewers to gauge progress.

Likert scale (choose one), prompt: Judging from the first three paragraphs, how complete would you guess this paper is?

  • 20%
  • 40%
  • 60%
  • 80%
  • >90%

Why I like it: For reviewers, making this estimate is instructive. By thinking about all the criteria and evaluating how complete the draft is, reviewers have begun to identify the gaps and weaknesses before they put those into words. For a writer, knowing how complete reviewers think the draft is helps them gauge the time needed to revise.

Let reviewers speak for you as the primary audience.

Likert scale (choose one), prompt: Predict how Major Johnston will assess this paper after reading 58 others like it.

  • A. It is unique, clean, and on-the-prompt.
  • B. It is a skillful response to the prompt, but there are issues.
  • C. Nothing special. But it somehow deals with the prompt.

Why I like it: Generally, peer grading makes me nervous because it can put the focus on the grades before writers have developed their ideas. This peer grading question on a late-stage draft, however, helps students remember that the instructor is a reader too. It lays bare the rhetorical context of a well-intentioned professor facing a stack of papers. I like it’s honesty and simplicity.

Military Grade Review Prompts was published to the Eli Review Blog in the category Pedagogy.

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