“We’re all in this together”: Methods for Utilizing Peer Review

You have likely heard the saying, “Two heads are better than one.” Attributed to John Heywood (c. 1497 – c. 1580), the English dramatist known especially for his proverbs, this longstanding truism also serves as a commendation for peer review. If two heads are better than one, then what will an entire classroom yield?

Peer review allows students to experience the advantage of feedback not only from the instructor but from their colleagues as well. There are several reasons to recommend employing such an approach, not least of which is a related phenomenon: peer pressure. Yet the ideal results of utilizing this instrument reveal a better motivation—students are informing themselves through variant points of view on an assigned topic, they are learning from others via the successes and digressions of their colleagues whose work they evaluate, they are learning from themselves by engaging in the review process, and they are transferring the positive criticism they have applied to the work of others to their own. With peer review, everyone learns.

What is Peer Review & How Can It Be Used?

As an instructor of Writing Intensive courses at the University of Missouri, I have utilized peer review in a number of ways in my courses within the School of Music. When I was asked to be part of the Seminar for WI Teaching Excellence, I developed a presentation on peer review goals and approaches for my fellow faculty members at the University. Below I have included the Power Point that I developed for this presentation, which offers more of an overview of what peer review is and how it can be used:

Powerpoint Presentation: Peer Review Goals and Approaches

How I Facilitate Peer Review

While this general information on peer review might be of some use, here are a few of the specific ways I utilize this approach in my classroom. Peer review can provide some of its greatest benefits when assignments are directly related to tasks the students will likely be expected to complete in jobs associated with the field of study in which they are presently engaged. In my own area of teaching, I like to include writing assignments that will benefit music students beyond their enrollment in the class. For this reason, I almost always require that they produce a well-researched, well-written, audience-friendly set of program notes for a hypothetical concert, the content of which they must determine based on the expectations for a well-conceived performance. This is an example of such an assignment: Listening Notes Assignment Sheet (PDF).

Once students have drafted their documents, I ask that they bring them to class where the process of peer review begins. Here are the various stages that we go through:

  1. Pairing Expertise and Interest: As much as is possible given the makeup of the class, drafts are distributed to students according to personal areas of interest. Therefore, pianists ideally can review programs of piano music, vocalists of vocal music, etc.). To facilitate such an exchange, I have students introduce themselves on the first day of class and discuss their academic major and musical interests. I take notes and keep their interests in mind when pairing them together for peer reviews.
  2. Exchanging Papers: Students peer review outside of class after exchanging papers that I have paired together in class. They do their review as homework and bring back the papers they have examined for discussion during a designated subsequent class period.
  3. Using a Rubric to Provide Feedback: I offer students rubrics designed to reflect the requirements of the assignment and the weight to be placed on each item, which they use in peer review. You can find a sample rubric here: Listening Notes Assignment Rubric (PDF). When peer reviewing, students score each other’s papers on the scale of 1-5 for each category listed in the rubric. Then students provide explanations for their scoring. The rubric guide reinforces the expectations of the assignment and gives students a framework for peer review.
  4. Commenting on Peer Drafts: After filling out the rubric, which focuses on higher order concerns primarily, students deal with lower order concerns by commenting directly on each other’s drafts to address grammatical and stylistic issues.
  5. Instructor Review of Drafts: As the instructor, I also review each draft independently according to the same rubric and the same instructions. I follow the same method that the peers go through in review, filling out the rubric and addressing higher order issues, and then commenting on the paper in regards to lower order concerns like grammar, style, and clarity.
  6. Exchange of Papers: After peers have commented and I have as well, we have a day where papers are returned and students receive feedback both from me and from their peer reviewer. I also give students time in class to read quickly over the feedback.
  7. Open Discussion: We conclude the review process with an open discussion in class to address problem areas and how best to approach them in the revision stage.

I choose to include both peer feedback and my own comments on the same draft because students learn a great deal by going through the process of reviewing someone else’s paper, but I also want to ensure that each student receives multiple forms of feedback for revision and not just one peer’s opinion. In this non-confrontational setting and under my guidance, students provide their colleagues with suggestions for improvement, exchange ideas on how and why problems occur, willingly reveal their own mistakes, and arrive at many of their own solutions.

Tips for Effective and Efficient Peer Review

For the peer-review segment of the class to be effective for students, it is necessary that the instructor’s expectations be consistent and clearly stated beforehand. Remember, students are people too and need your informed guidance to best apply their critical and evaluative skills.

In conducting a peer review, you should make sure that students are aware of the following:

  • What should students be reading for? For example, are they looking at whether ideas are critically defended, methodology, structure, grammar?
  • How should students report their findings? For example, where should they offer comments? Are they writing in the margins, writing on a rubric, explaining verbally?
  • If using a rubric: What guidelines should students use for each portion and rating level in the rubric? What parameters should they consider for each aspect of the rubric?
  • How much weight should students place on technical matters like grammar, spelling, and punctuation? Students may need to be reminded that undue amounts of time should not be spent on editing and correcting lower-level aspects of writing.

All of these expectations should be made clear in order to minimize confusion and maximize what students get out of peer review. Additionally, for students to devote the greatest degree of interest in completing an assignment, they must know that their time is worth the effort. For that reason,

  • Peer reviews must be evaluated,
  • Students must know how they are to be evaluated, and
  • Students must believe that the review has worth within the broader context of the course.

Professors are busy people; so are students. Respect your students’ time by making your motives clear.

Judith Mabary is an associate professor of musicology in the School of Music and has been at the University of Missouri since 2006. Her primary research focus encompasses the history of music by composers originating in the area known today as the Czech Republic. Dr. Mabary has been teaching Writing Intensive courses for MU for nine years, and in that time she has developed an interest in the value of peer review. She learned early on how much insight students bring to the classroom when allowed to do so. Her recommendation for teachers is this: Don’t underestimate your students. Indeed, they have much to learn, but they also have much to teach.