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Building Strong Personal Connections in Peer Learning

In Fall 2020, Libby Miles, Associate Professor of English at the University of Vermont, introduced Eli Review to students in a required activity and then let them choose whether to continue peer learning for the rest of the term. She reports:

Interestingly, when given the choice, every single one of my first-year students opted to stay with Eli Review, and found it to be one of the best elements of the class. In my upper division class, 4 students opted out due to time and connectivity constraints, and the others also praised it as one of the best elements in the course. Both courses received high evaluations (yay), and students singled out how Eli made them feel connected to one another in an otherwise disconnected semester.

Personal connections are powerful. Seeing how other students approach assignments and getting feedback about your own draft makes online learning less lonely.

In a study of scaffolded reviews of both model drafts and peer drafts in a Human Physiology class, Geithner and Pollastro (2016) found that “students’ perceptions of their ‘ability to effectively and collaboratively work with peers in the peer review process’ (as most noticeably evidenced in the final peer review) and ‘sense of being part of a scientific learning community’ increased from the precourse to postcourse by 1.1 points on the 5-point Likert-type scale.”

Peer review can contribute to students’ sense of belonging. Instructors can encourage these outcomes by designing reviews to build stronger, more personal connections between writers, reviewers, and themselves.

Strategies Across the Disciplines

We want to highlight some of creative ways instructors have used Eli Review to guide students in providing helpful, personal feedback. We appreciate all the faculty who gave us permission to share their work in this blog.

Djibo Zanzot, Organismal Biology, Auburn University

As an introductory activity in Eli Review, Djibo Zanzot asks biology students to write about an animal that interests them. Then, in peer review, students look for specific aspects of the description (click to see full review task). The final comment prompt explicitly directs students to articulate what strategies other writers are using.

This writing assignment asks you as a writer to introduce an animal that interests you. As a reader, what do you think the author might want to research to expand their knowledge and interest in the animal they’ve selected? (E.g., Tigers are carnivores, but what are the animals that make up most of their diet, and how does that vary across the range of tigers?)

When you read this passage, how did the passage affect YOUR thinking about YOUR OWN writing? Things to emulate or avoid? Please be civil and constructive.

Valerie Gramling, English, University of Miami

Echoing Peter Elbow, Valerie Gramling encourages reviewers to write a substantial summary before offering overall feedback. By stating the desired length of the summary and leaving the amount of additional feedback up to reviewers, Gramling reinforces that idea that effective feedback holds up a mirror so that writers can tell if they’re being clear or not:

Often one of the most useful things we can do as Peer Reviewers is tell writers what we understand from reading their essays – essentially, saying back to them what we read. This ‘sayback’ helps writers know if they are being clear about what they are trying to say.

Write a short paragraph that summarizes the writer’s draft as you understand it (about 3-5 sentences). Then feel free to give the writer any final feedback you would like.


Gretchen Macht, Mechanical, Industrial and Systems Engineering, University of Rhode Island

Gretchen Macht’s initial Eli Review assignment sequence asks writers to list reasons they are taking the Systems & Sustainability course. The review task encourages students to respond to each other’s lists (see full review task), which helps build strong community in the first review:

What do you agree with in the items/list? Share commonality if there is overlap between yourself and their submission. If there is no commonality, please discuss positive ways in which you both could learn together.

Kate Manbachi, Sociology, San Francisco State University

After a few weeks of providing comment templates to guide reviewers in giving helpful feedback, Kate Manbachi gives students this open-ended final comment prompt, which emphasizes their personal connection:

Is there anything else you’d like to communicate to the writer about their draft? Tell them something you learned from reading their work 🙂

Libby Miles, English, University of Vermont

Libby Miles designs reviews to include a short checklist of criteria, one rating scale,  and contextual comments that illustrate the rating (see full review task). Although ratings scales can position reviewers as evaluators or peer graders, Miles deliberately humanizes the scale descriptions:

To what extent do these descriptions put you in a place where memories happen?

1 = not feeling it; 3 = yeah, I get it; 5 = it explodes with life!

Miles notes,

Students have a clear sense that those were written by me, in my voice, and it connects them more to the class than generic-sounding descriptors would. It also models a more casual way to interact with each other, thus avoiding the ‘little teacher’ trap.

A few students have told me they actually enjoy seeing how I will translate the 5-point scale from week to week. It’s always good to find out that little things like that can matter!


Penny Smith-Parris, English, University of Missouri-Columbia

To guide students in responding to “zero drafts,” Penny Smith-Parris provides a template paragraph. Because so much peer review focuses on evaluation and assessment, students can struggle to figure out how to think alongside a peer. Embedding an example in the prompt encourages students to brainstorm, not find flaws.

Write a paragraph or two back to the writer that includes these lines or something similar:

I think you might develop your analysis more toward understanding ______. This idea came to me when I was reading because _______. With this approach, you would need to research more about ________. You might consider looking into …. You would definitely want to think about these viewpoints …. It could also be productive to recognize how these groups/populations/intersections of identity would react to …. You’d end up making a statement about the effects of ….. on ….. and it would make visible how rhetoric works to persuade ….

Finally, I found the part about _____ engaging because _____. In your analysis, I understood that …. and I was impressed by …. To sharpen this analysis, you could ….

Jack Russell Weinstein, Philosophy, University of North Dakota

In Jack Russell Weinstein’s upper-level philosophy course, writers compose five paragraphs discussing possible topics. The review task then guides students in thinking about the topics from the wider vantage point of the audience:

As you respond to these, don’t just express your own reaction, advocate for other readers. Say to yourself, “the audience might think…” and see if there are issues of confusion or clarity. Be supportive and helpful. Your goal is to help this person write the clearest texts possible. This isn’t a competition; it’s a partnership.

These framing instructions led students to verify that the proposal is complete and then to advocate for some topics over others (click to see the review task). By encouraging reviewers to consider themselves as partners with writers and as advocates for the future audience, this review gives students two authentic roles.


Building Strong Personal Connections in Peer Learning was published to the Eli Review Blog in the category Example Peer Feedback Tasks.

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