Peer learning works well when students are on-pace together and invested in helping each other succeed. The role of giving timely, helpful feedback in students’ own improvement isn’t obvious. Nor do they expect it to count for much of their final grade.
Shifting Focus with a Grading Contract
Returning Eli user and California State University, Sacramento professor Tialitha (Ti) Macklin is turning those expectations on their head with contract grading. She opens the contract with this key question:
How do we improve as writers rather than simply improve our writing?
Three preliminary answers frame the course: (1) practicing daily writing, including in peer learning; (2) participating in the class’s writing community; and (3) emphasizing labor.
The focus of this class will be on improving your skills and experiences as a writer. . . . In this class, you will be almost entirely responsible for your own grade. The default grade for the course is a “B. If you do all that is asked of you completely and in the spirit it is asked, engage in the various writing processes of the semester, and show evidence of improvement in both these processes and your writing, then you’ll get a “B.” Your grade will be lower if you miss class, turn in assignments late, do not attempt to increase your work’s intensity, or forget to do assignments, etc.
Following Inoue, she defines labor in this way:
All the labor of the course (e.g., reading, writing, and other activities) should be done in the spirit in which it is assigned. This means that you will meet the minimum time and effort requirements that we define as a class. You should do your best to meet assignment requirements like word count and time on task in addition to meeting the other requirements of writing prompts. Additionally, you will receive feedback from your peers and me throughout the semester that will require you to spend more time and effort on your writing than the assignment may call for in order to meet the needs of your readers (as defined by the prompt).
The contract puts the weight of the course grade on what students do. It’s a policy enacting behaviorism (Gallagher). It’s quite different from setting the minimum standards for what good writing is.
Effort That Meets the “Spirit of the Assignment”
Of any piece of writing, including the writing students do as reviewers, the key question for evaluation purposes in Macklin’s course is: “Does this effort meet the spirit of the assignment?” The spirit of the assignment is the work needed to become a better writer.
As part of that work, Macklin describes the labor in peer learning:
Peer review is an essential element of this class. Research indicates that writers who are able to provide helpful comments to others tend to develop as more effective writers in general. We call this phenomenon “Giver’s Gain,” and we will practice learning to provide and apply useful feedback throughout the entire semester (write, review, revise). As a member of this class, I expect you to try your best (even when it’s frustrating) to provide your fellow students will the most helpful feedback you can. I also expect you to apply our labor agreement to peer review to meet the expectations of the assignment. Remember, we’re here to help each other to improve as writers!
The labor of peer learning is helping other writers improve as writers . . . labor that improves the student as a writer too. So often, peer review is about improving the text itself. Macklin’s framing reminds students of the larger goals.
Giving helpful feedback primes students for revision. Revising improves both the text and the writer. Students labor as reviewers increases the amount of time and energy they spend thinking about revision.
When reviewers give feedback “in the spirit of the assignment,” they are doing what it takes to become a better writer.
Quantifying the Minimum Dose
That approach resonates with the research our team has been doing on the minimum dose in peer learning. Bill Hart-Davison explains this concept by drawing an analogy to clinical medical trials. With any intervention, there’s a minimum dose. Below that level, the intervention is not going to do any good. If a doctor prescribes more exercise, and the patient walks 30 feet instead of 3 miles, the patient’s non-results do not reflect the efficacy of the intervention. Walking actually works. The patient didn’t walk enough to experience a good result. Without enough of the intervention, there can be no expectation of improvement.
Peer learning is an intervention, and there’s a minimum dose of effort under which no one benefits. While our team doesn’t think there’s a universal minimum word count, we’ve got good evidence that peer-to-peer comments that are too short (less than 20 words) are unhelpful for the writers who get them and the reviewers who give them. A pattern of too short comments within a review or across multiple reviews is strong evidence that reviewers are doing too little to improve. Our empirical research is quantifying minimum dose indicators, and we have more confidence in our beta algorithm for accurately putting red flags on reviewers’ effort.
Socially-Negotiating the Minimum Dose
Both our empirical research and Macklin’s contract hinge on the notion of a minimum dose. Whereas we are working on quantitative trends, Macklin’s contract makes minimum dose a socially negotiated boundary.
Asking “Does this meet the spirit of the assignment?” helps students and instructors define the the line between enough and not enough effort.
Macklin’s minimum dose of effort in write-review-revise cycles go a long way to producing better writers.