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The Secret Sauce of Producing Better Writers

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

Better writers revise more. Better writers revise best when deliberately practicing a key skill based on helpful peer feedback and expert instructor coaching. That’s it. That’s the secret sauce. It’s actually not a secret at all, except in execution.

We started this blog series with the bold assertion that students aren’t revising enough. They don’t revise because the typical timeline for drafting is extended whereas the timeline for revision is compressed.



This timeline means that feedback is usually too little and too late. To increase revision, we have to change when and how often feedback happens.  Because let’s face it…without timely, detailed, and specific feedback, good revisions are unlikely to happen at all. Since we’re not turning feedback over to robots, we also have to change who is giving most of that feedback. That’s how peer learning makes rapid feedback and revision cycles scalable.

Teachers aren’t making widgets, however, so scale depends on careful pedagogy. We’re increasing students’ capacity to learn from each other while they practice important skills, revising their way to better drafts. We’re creating scenarios in which students look at others’ drafts, talk about their work in progress—where they are, where they are headed, and what their options are—and then revise accordingly. Learning happens not just in execution but also in conversation.

Why does giving feedback matter?

The conversation students have with each other about their work in progress is metadiscourse that helps writers revise. Most discussions of metadiscourse focus on words and phrases in drafts that show writers indicating to readers what they are doing and what’s next in the text (Vande Kopple 1985; Hyland 2005). Bill Hart-Davidson and Ryan Omizo (2016) classify these as “genre signals.” In this blog series, we’ve been using metadiscourse in the larger sense of “talking about writing” along the lines of Gere and Abbott (1985). In talk about writing, there are genre signals (or metadiscourse in the usual sense) in students’ comments that let writers know what reviewers saying. These genre signals in reviewers’ comments also let teachers know reviewers are learning.

Genre signals in students’ comments that let writers know what reviewers saying, but also let teachers know reviewers are learning.

In this blog, we’ve posited that students’ mastery of giving helpful comments depends on their inclusion of signals related to “describe-evaluate-suggest” pattern. The absence of these three moves results in bad feedback, which writers can’t use to revise. But, bad feedback has a larger consequence: it doesn’t lead to givers’ gain. Givers’ gain is the benefit reviewers get when they apply to their own work what they see other writers doing or not doing.

In this way, better writing results from giving more helpful feedback. While weak and strong writers no doubt benefit from giving helpful feedback in different ways, engagement in peer review puts students in their zone of proximal development where learning is richest.

What kind of learning is peer learning?

Peer learning through feedback and revision cycles braids four kinds of learning goals, which will be familiar for Bloom’s taxonomy users.  Bill describes them this way:

  1. Improve knowledge—knowing that
  2. Improve skills—knowing how
  3. Improve attitudes—thinking that
  4. Improve values—caring about

For example, consider what it takes to help students get better at articulating arguable claims.  They need instruction to increase their knowledge about what effective claims are. Plus, they need multiple opportunities for deliberate skill practice in developing effective claims: they have to try their hand at writing an arguable claim, figure out how to talk about how well claims meet the goals, get timely feedback on their efforts, and try again and again until the routine becomes automatic.

To fully benefit from this instruction and scaffolding, students must also fully engage in the process of giving feedback and revising multiple times. This engagement hinges on both attitudes and values. Students have to show up to practice, not just to go through the motions. They must value the chance to improve enough to put in effort. They also have to think about the outcome of their work differently. Their attitude needs to focus on growth opportunities. It’s not just about whether the final version of the claim is arguable. The value lies in everything they learned by co-constructing their knowledge about effective arguable claims while giving and receiving feedback and revising. It’s about knowing they’ve got a new skill in their toolbox for the future. When they buy-in, when they have right attitude about its value, students are likely to practice enough to improve.

What kind of results come from peer learning?

Designing a peer learning environment that changes students’ knowledge, skills, attitudes, and values is an ambitious journey. But it’s worth the effort.

These instructors have found that more peer learning, done well, produces better learning. Eli is not magic. It’s not a silver bullet. But, it lets instructors do more of what works—namely, feedback and revision—with greater visibility into the process. Eli’s analytics help instructors pay attention to how students’ are improving. Here’s how some Eli Review users explain why they make feedback and revision through peer learning routine and powerful in their classes:

Lisa Schanhals, Spring Lake HS, AP Biology:

I am more efficient at identifying what my students are struggling with conceptually. As a result, any material I re-teach or in class practice is more direct.

I am able to manage writing assignments in science classroom with Eli. Before Eli when I tried to do peer review I was spending time I didn’t have in the copy room. I can manage students who turn in assignments late and they can still participate in the review. I am able to guide students through the review process. Students get good feedback by design in a day from their peers vs. a few days from me.

Regina Chanel Rodriguez, West Texas A&M, College of Education Online M.A.

I was looking for a way to recreate that collaborative communication that comes from class discussions, writers’ conferences, and peer reviews. The only tools I had available at that time were Blackboard and track changes in Word, which were cumbersome and felt like they stifled the reiterative, collaborative process of writing, rather than promoted it.

Eli provided a space where I could exercise low-stakes writing practice and build my students’ confidence in research writing by breaking a larger piece of writing into manageable parts with trait checklists, so that I could be there to guide my students through the process instead of “sending them away to write.”

Timothy Amidon, Colorado State University, English

The core of students who really engaged with Eli this semester, those students showed me just how transformative Eli can be. I saw improvement and growth on a scale that I haven’t seen in previous courses. So, generally, I think that Eli  makes a lot of tacit things that happen in a writing classroom way more visible. It gives us opportunities to talk about those things and have dialogue about strategies for responding to them.

For those who were willing to engage, it truly created a community of practice, and I guess the part I’m working through now is how can I as an educator use the tool even more effectively to engage those who seem disinterested in the community.

Jo Lien, North Idaho College, English

Eli helped make writing instruction more tangible for my students, especially when I was careful to link class lessons to the review tasks (even more so when class lessons were a follow-up to the review tasks). Eli helped me to guide students into meaningful independent practice: I would introduce concepts in class, we would practice together, and then students would practice independently during the reviews, which took place outside of class.  When students actually had to apply concepts that were taught in class, they took more ownership of the content and their own skill development.

Bob Yagelski, SUNY-Albany, English

Think of adopting Eli as an ongoing process of learning and professional development. This isn’t–and shouldn’t be–a matter of getting people familiar and comfortable with Eli and then moving on. Rather, Eli should be an opportunity and vehicle for the ongoing process of learning to teach writing more effectively. That process involves program evaluation, assessment self-reflection, and program development, and I think Eli can be an important part of all those things, not only because it can force faculty to confront important questions about things like peer response, but also because it enables us to collect useful data about what students are doing, what they think, and what they seem to know about writing.

What kind of challenges can be opportunities in peer learning?

We take seriously Yagelski’s point that “Eli should be an opportunity and vehicle for the ongoing process of learning to teach writing more effectively.” This series is one expression of that commitment. Through the series, we’ve addressed the most common reasons teachers put the brakes peer learning and explained how to find the gas pedal.

These common challenges make peer learning seem like more trouble than it is worth. Instructors give up because it seems like they lack something—time, energy, patience—to make peer learning work well. If we design the activities knowing how to turn these common challenges into opportunities, peer learning can actually be the best learning experience we can offer our students.

Students learn best from each other. Not only in our classrooms, but out in the world, for the rest of their lives, they will find that colleagues can be their most valuable assets when it comes to learning.


  1. Gere, Anne Ruggles, and Robert D. Abbott. 1985. “Talking about Writing: The Language of Writing Groups.” Research in the Teaching of English 19 (4): 362–85.
  2. Hyland, Ken. 2005. Metadiscourse: Exploring Interaction in Writing. London; New York: Continuum.
  3. Kopple, William J. Vande. 1985. “Some Exploratory Discourse on Metadiscourse.” College Composition and Communication 36 (1): 82. doi:10.2307/357609.
  4. Omizo, Ryan, and William Hart-Davidson. 2016. “Finding Genre Signals in Academic Writing.” Journal of Writing Research 7 (3 (February 2016)): 485–509. doi:10.17239/jowr-2016.07.03.08.

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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