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Helpful Comments: The Foundation of Formative Peer Review

This week, I’ll be speaking at the Public Philosophy Network conference where I’m going to talk about the concept of formative peer review. For an academic audience, the idea of review with the aim not to evaluate and qualify or reject work but to make the writing (and the writer!) better is…well…a little bit novel. Professional peer review is about deciding “publish, revise, reject,” and we often bring that frame to peer learning in the form of peer grading. Even without the explicit guideline for students to grade each other, this focus rushes students to answer “How good is it?” before they unpack what it is and what constitutes good. And we risk the true focus of peer learning: better writers, not just better writing.

But of course this is the very foundation for the pedagogical model we aim to support with Eli Review. And we even have a simple but powerful formula that allows just about everybody to incorporate formative peer review into their classrooms. It’s a pattern we teach students to use in order to make helpful comments: Describe, Evaluate, Suggest.

Helpful comments, as we understand them, are ones that help the writer see their work differently, from a new perspective. That is they encourage re-vision (aha! See how that works?). Helpful comments result when a reviewer describes what they see the writer doing or trying to do, evaluate what the writer has achieved with reference to some shared criteria, and make a suggestion for how to improve the draft.

When a writer uses this Describe, Evaluate, Suggest pattern we see that it creates three powerful alignments with benefits for both the writer and the reviewer:

  1. Describing aligns vision, answering the writer’s question “did I get my point across?”
  2. Evaluating aligns value, answering the question “does the draft exhibit the criteria we agree on?”
  3. Suggesting aligns actions, creating a plan to improve the draft and help the writer be more prepared for the next time they might write something similar.

Writers get a great thing from helpful comments: revision fuel. Reviewers get two good things from them too: practice in critical reading and applying criteria to a draft, and practice imagining changes to the draft that will improve it. This is revision practice for the reviewer, and it’s as valuable an activity for helping writers learn as any other single thing they can do.

As a teacher, I get some valuable things from teaching formative peer review too. The most important is feedback on what the various writers and reviewers are concerned about, what they think are the most important areas for improvement when they give one another advice. I can then amplify and clarify those things when I talk to students and comment on their work myself.

The second valuable thing I get from formative peer review – and especially from teaching students to make helpful comments for one another – is…time. My time reading and responding to student work can move to reading what students say to one another in their comments. I spend a lot of time reading the comments students give to one another. Why? Because of the alignments I mentioned above! Comments (and especially D-E-S pattern comments) are the best indication of what students are seeing, valuing, and planning to act on.

I also see what advice writers are taking from one another by reading revision plans. Paying attention to formative peer review as a primary concern rather than seeing it as secondary to their drafts allows me to do something a bit different when I comment on student work. I focus on making adjustments to the ways writers are planning to improve their drafts. Because I’ve spent time with the comments they each have made to other writers, I often can say “psst… you are on the right track in your feedback to Danica…take your own advice in your draft!.”

Everybody wins with formative peer review: writers, reviewers, and the instructor. Over time, in a classroom or in a community of scholars, a strong feedback culture can form that really helps writers gain skill AND confidence in their abilities. 

Helpful Comments: The Foundation of Formative Peer Review was published to the Eli Review Blog in the category Uncategorized.

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