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Know When to Shut Up, Part II

This post is a part of the series Challenges and Opportunities in Peer Learning.

In Know When to Shut Up, Part I, we explained that knowing when to shut up relates to the role instructors choose for themselves and how much heavy lifting they ask students to do. Instructors have access to two levers:

  • A short lever to improve a single draft through expert feedback;
  • A long lever to elevate the conversation around all drafts through peer learning.

The short lever is useful once not only because instructors have limited time but also because students tend to hear nothing else after receiving an instructor’s comments. A long lever, however, can be used early and often, especially if the tasks are tightly focused.

Both levers can have high-impact, and timing is important. The choices about when and how often to use each lever affects the total amount of feedback students get. More feedback is better, especially as peer feedback improves over time. To make sure students get the most feedback, save expert feedback for that moment when students have run out of helpful things to say to each other. It’s tough to wait for that moment and to recognize it.

Part 2: The Arts of Restraint

In using both levers, an instructor’s best tool is restraint. With the short lever, commenting on what students can handle rather than the full laundry list of problems takes discipline. With the longer lever, listening rather than talking might require biting your tongue. Wait that extra 20 seconds, and students fill the gap. Listen in on group work, ask a good question, and walk away. Second a peer’s suggestion rather than making a different one. Ignore an error in favor of teaching a more important skill. These are the arts of restraint, a few of the many ways instructors shut up and let students do the heavy lifting.

Another art of restraint is letting insight come through experience rather than persuasion. That’s actually a good way to think about peer learning. Instructors want to persuade students to value certain ways of thinking and composing, but the most compelling argument is never as persuasive as a good experience revising with feedback. As an experience in ways of thinking and composing, peer learning goes like this:

  • The assignment gives students some cues about the criteria that matter, and they write toward the vague approximation of those criteria that they imagine.
  • In review, as they apply them to others’ drafts, the criteria come into focus.
  • In debriefing, the focus on criteria sharpens as instructors discuss exemplars and revision priorities.
  • When writers get their feedback and revise, the criteria are clear enough to be useful for helping them re-see their work.

Students understand the criteria better at the end of the process not necessarily because the assignment was unclear at the beginning but because they had to grow into that way of seeing.

Creating a feedback-rich environment that guides students in re-seeing their work takes restraint. Instead of talking more about criteria, instructors design reviews that help the criteria come into focus. Then, they interact with and learn from students’ comments, sharpening the conversation even more.

Strategy: Design reviews that get students to see drafts like we do.

Peer learning success begins with an effective review. Getting students to say to each other what we always say to them is a goal of a good peer learning activity. It’s a goal because it entails teaching students to read as we read, and ideally, to read as writers.

A good peer learning exercise creates a productive struggle so that students work closely with others’ ideas in light of the assignment’s expectations. E. Shelley Reid’s articlePeer Review: Successful from the Startdescribes six benefits of assigning peer review:

  • 3 benefits by getting ready
    • Broaden the audience beyond The Instructor
    • Force an earlier draft
    • Indicate that you The Instructor value students’ input
  • 2 for showing up
    • Boost confidence in own performance or get options for revision
    • Reinforce that writing is about (controlled and modified) choices, not about inspired, immutable vision
  • 1 in checking the bottom line
    • Ask students to check each other’s work (indirectly but more reliably) against the assignment criteria

Designing effective reviews can help students get the feedback they need in order to figure out how to succeed. In the process of reading several peers’ drafts and comparing those with criteria, students become more discriminating about what is good and more flexible about what is possible.

The review task itself is an instructor’s first intervention in the learning process. By demystifying the criteria, effective reviews let students to do more of the work that is necessary for them to learn. Students’ metadiscourse﹘their writing about their writing﹘is rich with information about what they understand and what they may need additional help grasping.

Strategy: Study students’ feedback.

A well-designed review not only helps reviewers see drafts according to criteria but also yields data instructors can use to decide what to teach next. This second intervention involves coaching students by debriefing the trends we see in the feedback they’ve given each other. As we coach these early-stage peer learning activities, we figure out what students can and can’t see, what they can and can’t say to each other.  Reviewers’ comments are authentic learning records, clear evidence of their skills.

In this video, Michigan State University Associate Professor Marohang Limbu (see his instructor profile) describes how he reads students comments because those comments tell him how well the drafts are going and where students are struggling:

Eli makes this work easy by giving instructors analytics and comment digests that help them see students’ learning. Our module on “Evidence-Based Teaching” describes ways of using the trends from reviewers’ feedback to “sweep across the line” in order to see how the whole class is doing, “lean out” and let students struggle a bit, or “lean in” to intervene with those for whom the struggle is not productive. Instructors can read through all the comments exchanged and find the patterns that indicate success and struggle.

By studying peer feedback, instructors can see how students are applying concepts and making connections. We can point out what successful students are doing. Using the long lever of peer feedback, we help students do more of the heavy lifting. And, when the evidence pinpoints a student who is struggling, we can always use the short lever of instructor feedback to intervene.

The seismic shift, however, is teaching from the belief that the long lever of peer feedback represents our best effort at improving learning.

Bottom-line: Embrace the change in the teacher’s role.

This shift in our work from the short lever of instructor feedback to the long lever of peer feedback will feel different to students. A process-oriented course requires more practice and emphasizes different skills than a product-oriented course. Opportunities for productive struggle are surely less welcome to students than recipes for grade boosts.

But, these shifts also feel different to us. If we’ve measured our diligence in red ink, less of it looks like negligence. In his chapter on the importance of in-class practice in Small Teaching, James L. Lang writes:

I can’t close this chapter without noting one hurdle that I had to overcome as I gradually shifted more and more practice sessions into my classroom: the uneasy feeling I would get when students were working away at some task and I wasn’t actively engaged in what I had always thought about as teaching. I wasn’t lecturing to them, or leading a discussion, or trying to keep a handle on a group project, or supervising an assessment. These are comfortable and familiar activities for teachers; observing, listening, and reflecting seem less familiar to us in the classroom. However, if you can learn to use the time in which they are practicing as an opportunity for you to gain a better understanding of their current skill levels and can offer them both individualized and group feedback, you will grow more accustomed to those moments in which . . . [students are engaging] in active, mindful practice of important intellectual skills. (135-136).

Peer learning is about “active, mindful practice of important intellectual skills,” and the first step in creating that kind of a learning environment might mean choosing the long lever rather than the short one more often. It certainly requires shutting up.


  1. Haswell, Richard. 2006. “The Complexities of Responding to Student Writing; Or, Looking for Shortcuts via the Road of Excess.” Across the Disciplines 3 (November).
  2. Haswell, Richard H. 1983. “Minimal Marking.” College English 45 (6): 600. doi:10.2307/377147.
  3. Murray, Donald Morison, Thomas Newkirk, and Lisa C. Miller. 2009. The Essential Don Murray: Lessons from America’s Greatest Writing Teacher. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook Publishers/Heinemann. (Web Sample)
  4. Lang, James M. 2016. Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass & Pfeiffer.
  5. Reid, E. Shelley. 2006. Peer Review: Successful from the Start.”  The Teaching Professor 20 (8): 3.
  6. Sommers, Nancy I. 2012. Beyond the Red Ink: Students Talk about Teacher’s Comments. DVD. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s.
  7. Sommers, Nancy I. 2013. Responding to Student Writers. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s.

Challenges and Opportunities in Peer Learning

This blog series addresses the design challenges instructors face in creating rich peer learning environments. Those dilemmas feel familiar: finding the time, motivating students, worrying that they have the skills to help each other learn. But, we—the Eli Review team of Jeff Grabill, Bill Hart-Davidson, Mike McLeod, and Melissa Graham Meeks—approach these dilemmas from what might be an unfamiliar place. We understand more peer learning, done well, as the solution to motivation, skill development, and learning. In the classes we teach and in our work as a company, peer learning is routine and powerful.

  1. Your Students Aren’t Revising Enough
  2. Know When To Shut Up, Part I
  3. Know When to Shut Up, Part II
  4. Your Rubric Asks Too Much, Part I
  5. Your Rubric Asks Too Much, Part II
  6. Debrief Every Time, Part I
  7. Debrief Every Time, Part II
  8. No Pain, No Gain, Part I
  9. No Pain, No Gain, Part II
  10. You’ve Totally Got This, Part I
  11. You’ve Totally Got This, Part II
  12. Making a Horse Drink
  13. Bad Feedback Happens, Part I
  14. Bad Feedback Happens, Part II
  15. Give One, Get One
  16. The Secret Sauce of Producing Better Writers

Cover photo credit: Mikka Em

The Secret Sauce of Producing Better Writers was published to the Eli Review Blog in the category Pedagogy.

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