Having students give feedback to one another on their papers can have many advantages: the students get opportunities to develop their ability to give constructive feedback, they receive advice on their drafts, they have a broader audience for their work than just a single instructor, and they see different approaches other students have taken in responding to an assignment. However, peer review has to be carefully managed in order for students to take the process seriously; students tend to be skeptical of the value of receiving feedback from their fellow students rather than instructors. They can regard peer review sessions that provide vague or tangential feedback as “busywork.” This handout first describes general considerations that can help improve the quality of the feedback students offer one another before describing several strategies for managing peer review.
Table of Contents
Creating an Environment for Useful Feedback
Strategies for Peer Review: Comments Prepared Before Class
Strategies for Peer Review: Comments Prepared During Class
Strategies for Full-Class Workshops
Peer Review and Students’ Experiences
Evaluating Peer Review as an Instructor
Clarity of Purpose
Students need to know what they are expected to learn from exchanging feedback with their peers. Are you asking them to develop their own analytical skills? To become better proofreaders? To learn how to decide which advice to take as writers? To become more comfortable with the kinds of editorial processes they might encounter in their academic or professional futures? Being explicit about your goals can help them see how the peer review process fits into the larger context of your course.
How to Structure Peer Review
Peer review can be done in pairs, small groups or with the full class. Students can read over their peers’ work and prepare comments ahead of time, or students can read shorter works in class and discuss the work afterward. The decision about what structure to use should be based on how much time you have to devote to peer review during a class period (it generally takes 15-20 minutes for students to workshop essays they have read ahead of time), how many essays you would like students to workshop over the course of the term, and how involved you would like to be in the workshop process.
You can use one workshop structure during the term or include a variety of structures. Even if you plan on focusing on small group workshops during the term, you might consider facilitating at least one full-class workshop at the beginning of the term to help model best practices for workshopping. You may also workshop smaller sections of students’ essays in class early in the process and then workshop full papers once students have a complete draft. Below are details about the two main structures you might consider when including peer review workshops in your class.
Small Group Workshops
Smaller workshop groups can range in size and in your choice of commenting format (see “Strategies for Peer Review” below). Some options for small-group workshops are asking students to read and respond in class, informally or using more structured feedback sheets, or asking students to read essays posted on a course website and prepare comments ahead of time. The amount of time allotted for workshop as well as students’ workload will affect your choice of the structure and size of the small groups.
There are a few considerations to keep in mind when structuring small groups. Students can’t be expected to review too many papers for one class session if you want them to write detailed critiques for each draft. Thus, if you are using comment letters, your groups might include only three or four students. If you would like to use groups larger than three or four, you might consider holding peer review in groups of five or six students over the course of two days with two or three students being workshopped each day. This option allows students to receive a greater variety of feedback and see more examples of peers’ work. The division of labor matters here, too; each student should be required to critique the same number of essays, so you will need to find a way to divide work evenly.
Students also shouldn’t be expected to read essays that are longer than 3-4 pages in class, as this might take up too much class time or overwhelm the students. If students will be reading and responding on the spot, consider asking them to share shorter sections of longer papers.
When using small-group workshops, it can be helpful for the instructor to “float” between groups to make sure students are offering each other sufficiently detailed and engaged feedback. For example, if the reviewers in some groups seem too readily inclined to agree with one another, the instructor might point out that it can be valuable to the writer whose work is under review to hear competing perspectives and probe for those. It can also be useful to “sit in” on a few small groups for an extended period of time, dividing your time among the groups in the class.
Full Class Workshops
Full-class workshops can be helpful for developing shared standards about what to focus on in reviewing a paper and what kind of tone to use in delivering feedback. Many instructors appreciate this structure because it offers students ideas about how to revise their work using a variety of concrete examples from essays in progress.
This method of peer review works best when students have prepared comments on the paper before class and are ready to discuss the work in detail. It also helps for instructors to have prepared their own comments on the paper (using the same format as the students) and to have planned a strategy for leading discussion. You can spend class workshopping one or two sample papers provided by volunteers, divide up the class and workshop one paper per student over the course of the term, or workshop a model paper drawn from past iterations of the same course. The choice about what type and how many full-class workshops to offer depends on how much time you have to devote to workshop during the term and your goals for the workshop and the overall course. If you would prefer that students have more exposure to their peers’ work under your guidance, you might choose to schedule more full-class workshops. If you plan to use more small-group workshops throughout the class because you don’t have time to workshop every student individually, then offering one or two full-class workshops early in the class might be all that is needed. For a step-by-step process for full-class workshops, see the section below on “Strategies for Full Class Workshops.”
With almost any approach to peer review, it can be helpful to make sure that students get feedback from more than one peer on any given assignment. This allows them to have a better sense of whether a particular reader’s perceptions of their work is likely to resonate with others. If you use small groups throughout the term, you will need to decide whether to have students work in the same small groups consistently, which can help them develop a sense of camaraderie and investment in one another’s work, or whether to change the membership of the groups from one paper to the next. If you would like students to develop greater comfort with each other, you may choose to keep them in the same groups. However, it is also useful to allow students to work with many different writers so they can receive a greater variety of feedback.
When to Schedule Peer Review
Students can benefit from peer review at any stage of the writing process. To decide when to schedule peer review for your students, think about what you hope they will get out of it. If you want students to help each other with the formation of thesis statements or thinking about how to structure their papers, a peer review session early on would be most useful. If you want students to work on helping one another develop their points or polish their prose, scheduling peer review later in the process is probably best. Take care in deciding how peer review will work for your students; different kinds of peer review will better serve different goals, as the varieties of peer review explained below make clear.
When students engage in peer review in class—whether they have prepared written materials in advance or not—some groups will finish earlier than others. Letting those groups leave as soon as they have finished can create an incentive for everyone to rush through the peer review process in order to leave early. Thus, it can be useful to either schedule the peer review session first, if more than one activity will take place in class that day, or to ask groups that finish early to engage in follow-up work, such as having each member of the group read through the feedback received and start making notes about how he or she might revise the paper. For suggested activities for students to engage in after workshop see Supplement 1: “Exercises for After Workshop.”
Make It Count
Whatever approach you take—whether you have students take work home or do all of their peer reviewing in class—making the work they do as reviewers count in some way toward their grade can provide an incentive to do this work well. It can also be helpful to provide students with feedback on their feedback, letting them know, for example, whether the comments they are giving one another are tracking issues that are truly relevant to the assignments in question and whether their comments are specific enough to be helpful.
Creating an Environment for Useful Feedback
One sure way to make peer review more beneficial for students is to model for them how to give feedback on their peers’ writing. You can do this in a number of ways. For example, you might have your class workshop a sample paper from a previous semester and offer suggestions for improving their oral discussion or written comments before asking them to review their current peers’ work. You might also show them samples of written student feedback from previous semesters and ask them to discuss the strengths and weakness of that feedback and how they might improve it. Before you model productive peer review for your students, think about what kinds of feedback you want to prime them to give their fellow students.
Most students equate “peer review” with “criticism,” which can be constructive but is not always so. Having students provide only additive feedback—that is, make suggestions only about what the writer might add to or develop in the paper—is one way to help keep peer review positive.
Encouraging your students to be thoughtful readers of their peers’ work and to respond to it based on their own experience of the paper as readers is also useful. For instance: “the topic sentence of this paragraph led me to expect you to focus on X, so I was confused that there was so much of Y and Z in this paragraph instead.”
While modeling useful feedback is key to successful peer review, it’s also worthwhile to mention to your students a few categories of less useful comments that are best avoided. One such category is overly general comments, such as “I just didn’t get it” or “it’s great!” The lack of detail in these comments makes them unusable for writers looking to improve their work. Overly specific comments are similarly unhelpful. If a peer reviewer focuses, say, on the writer’s use of commas or comments excessively on a single point or idea to the exclusion of others, that doesn’t give the writer the kind of substantive feedback that is most helpful for revision. Finally, and obviously, personal insults or feedback that gets too personal really have no place in peer review. Comments like ‘this is a stupid idea” or “how lame” will not help any writer revise.
Strategies for Peer Review: Comments Prepared Before Class
There are many forms of peer review that ask students to study one another’s papers carefully outside of class. One advantage to this is that it signals to students that you expect them to invest real time and thought in giving one another feedback. Writing the feedback in advance can help students prepare for face-to-face workshops held in class. A sample prompt for guiding students through in-class workshops based on reviews written in advance can be found in Supplement 2: “Guidelines for Small Group Workshop.” For some guidelines for in-class small group workshops that include multilingual writers, see Supplement 2b: “Guidelines for Small Group Workshops Including Multilingual Students.”
Strategy 1: Comment Letters
Comment letters analyze the strengths and weaknesses of a draft and make suggestions for revision. Sample prompts for writing such a letter can be found in Supplement 3: “How to Write A Peer Critique.”
Strategy 2: Overview and Marginal Comments
This approach asks students to replicate a commenting method commonly used by writing instructors. Reviewers write one or two paragraphs at the beginning or end of the paper about what is working well and what needs improvement, and they make notes in the margins throughout the paper that direct the writer’s attention to specific places that are particularly strong or weak. A sample prompt for this approach can be found in Supplement 4: “Structured Commenting Protocol.”
Strategy 3: Commenting Forms
Forms can be used to prompt reviewers to address specific issues in the papers they analyze. These are most effective when they ask open-ended questions about how and why various elements of a paper are or aren’t working well, rather than questions to which a reviewer can simply reply “yes” or “no.” A sample of an effective commenting form can be found in Supplement 5: “Peer Critiques Handout.”
Strategies for Peer Review: Comments Prepared During Class
Strategy 1: Commenting Forms
Often instructors make use of commenting forms for in-class peer review. This is useful to do especially when it is advantageous to have the instructor on hand to provide guidance or feedback to students as they work though peer review, or when it is useful to the student completing the peer review to have the writer on hand to answer questions or discuss feedback. For this kind of peer review, it is essential that students bring hard copies of their papers for each peer reviewer or that electronic access to papers is available to peer reviewers during class. The same commenting forms used for take-home peer review can be used for in-class peer review. (See an example in Supplement 5: “Peer Critiques Handout.”)
Strategy 2: Self-Evaluation
When students get used to performing peer review on their fellow students’ work and anticipate that doing so will be a regular part of a writing assignment, it is often valuable and interesting to ask them instead to perform a self-evaluation of their own work. This requires students to take a step back from their own writing, read it with a critical eye, and consider it from an outsider’s perspective. While a form that guides students through this process is often helpful, you can also ask students to respond to their own work using a list of criteria they extract from the writing prompt or your grading rubric. It is useful to ask students to perform such self-evaluations in class, so that you can be on hand to offer guidance and feedback.
Strategy 3: “Speed” Peer Review
This method of peer review can be a useful tool when many students are struggling with a particular aspect of the assignment or desire feedback at an early stage. It works well with any part or aspect of the paper that can be fairly quickly read and for which the instructor or students can identify correct or desirable components. A good “speed” peer review could be performed, for instance, on thesis statements. For such an exercise, students should bring printed versions of their thesis statements to class. Chairs should be arranged in a circle, and the class should come to a consensus about how exactly they should respond to the thesis. For instance, students might focus on whether the thesis is specific enough or how it responds to the prompt. The instructor then has students pass papers to the right and gives students three minutes to read and offer written feedback under the thesis in front of them. After three minutes, students pass papers to the right again, and the process is repeated. In this way, in less than ten minutes, students can get several different perspectives on the effectiveness of their theses.
This method could be used on other parts of the paper as well, such as the introduction or the conclusion, a paragraph that integrates evidence and analysis, a paragraph that focuses on a counterargument, the methods or discussion section of a lab report, etc.
Strategies for Full-Class Workshops
Strategy 1: Facilitating a Full-Class Workshop on a Model Essay
It can be useful to use a sample essay to model the tone and the process of workshops for students who will be engaging in full-class or small-group workshops throughout the term. A model workshop could also provide students with an example of how to write the essay assignment in question.
Select a student paper from a past iteration of the class (with the permission of the student) that will provide an example of either a successful or unsuccessful response to the essay assignment (or a mixture of both; a B-range paper is often a good choice). Ask the students to read this essay ahead of time, using one of the methods above for preparing comments before class or provide them with the handout in Supplement 6: “Student Guidelines for Full-Class Workshop.”
Prepare your own comments based on the key writing issues that are present in the sample paper, making sure to focus on issues of global concerns, such as the argument, evidence, analysis, and organization. Try to keep your global concerns limited to three or four major issues, and select specific passages of the paper that illustrate these issues to share in class. If you would also like to discuss sentence-level issues, select two or three sentences to highlight.
In class, direct students to the passages you highlighted and ask them what issues they notice. Once you have covered the issues fully, open the floor to general comments and questions by students and respond to their comments by offering clarifications of your expectations for the assignment. For more details on facilitating full-class workshops, see Supplement 7: “Instructor Guidelines for Facilitating Full-Class Workshops.”
Strategy 2: Workshopping All Students in Full-Class Workshops
One common strategy that comes from the Writing Workshop tradition used in Master of Fine Arts programs is to workshop at least one essay per student throughout the course of the term. Using this strategy will require devoting a number of class sessions to peer review workshops, but the benefits are that each student will receive substantial feedback guided by you on at least one draft, and each full-class workshop will allow for concrete conversations about the different issues that inevitably—and sometimes unexpectedly—will come up in drafts. Often this strategy will provide students with a clearer sense of your expectations on the essay, regardless of whether their paper is being workshopped or not.
This strategy will require that a handful of students are workshopped for each paper assignment over the course of the term, so you’ll need to create a schedule at the beginning of the class. For example, for a class of 18 students with 3 major essay assignments, 6 students will need full-class workshops during each paper sequence. Because workshop preparation takes time and each workshop can be expected to last around 20-25 minutes, you should not expect to workshop more than 3 or 4 students per 80-minute class. Full-class workshops can be paired with small-group workshops for the students who are not being workshopped by the full class, so that all students will receive feedback for each essay assignment. If you plan to use full-class workshops, it will be important to set aside dates on your syllabus and create a sign-up sheet.
Before each workshop, each student being workshopped should post their essay on a course website for other students to access. Then students should download and prepare for the workshop before the class using one of the Strategies for Comments Prepared Before Class listed above. Or, for a handout to provide students before workshop, see Supplement 6: “Student Guidelines for Full Class Workshop.” On the workshop day, you should plan to facilitate discussion, directing students to global issues in each essay and pointing out key issues that you feel will help students succeed. For more detailed guidelines for facilitating full-class workshops, see Supplement 7: “Instructor Guidelines for Facilitating Full-Class Workshops.”
Strategy 3: Using the “Process for Critical Response” Method
The Process for Critical Response is a method of feedback that comes of out a performance setting. It was created as a way to encourage dialogue between the artist and the audience during the development of a dance or theater piece. This method is different from a reader-response method. While many workshops require the writer to remain quiet while the readers provide feedback, the goal of the Process for Critical Response is to foster a conversation centered around neutral questions and to give the writer more control of the workshop by requiring that the audience members ask the writer permission before offering critical opinions. This method can be used with either full-class or small groups, though it is generally best used with full-class workshops, as it is important to have a facilitator present to make sure comments are framed as neutral questions.
For the steps involved in this workshop format, see Supplement 8: “Guidelines for The Process for Critical Response.”
Peer Review and Students’ Experiences
Most students greatly appreciate the opportunity to read their peers’ papers and receive feedback from peers on their own work. When students resist or complain about peer review, it is often for one of three reasons, each of which is easily addressed.
“I’m getting mixed messages.”
Sometimes students have difficulty deciding between conflicting comments from their peers. It can be helpful to acknowledge that choosing which advice to follow is not always easy and to provide opportunities for your students to talk with you, either in writing or in person, before they decide what to do. For example, you might have them complete a simple questionnaire immediately after the review session that includes questions such as, “What is the most important revision you plan to make to this paper?” and “What questions do you still have about how to revise this draft?” For more suggestions for helping students navigate feedback given during peer review, see the section on “Monitoring Exercises” in the resource Metacognition – Cultivating Reflection.
“Who am I to judge?”
Some students are self-conscious about their own adequacy as evaluators of other students’ work; they feel that, as peers, they do not have superior experience or knowledge and are in fact so in need of help with their own writing that they cannot possibly offer valuable feedback to a fellow student. An easy and honest reply to this kind of trepidation is that peer review is not about making definite pronouncements, but rather about offering advice, which writers can consider and then apply only if it seems helpful. In addition, it is arguable that, as a student in the same class, the peer reviewer knows more about the expectations of the assignment and the challenges it presents than anyone except the instructor. The peer reviewer is actually more, not less qualified than an “expert” from outside the class.
“The peers who read my paper never give me helpful feedback.”
Occasionally students will complain that the advice and comments about their papers that they receive from peers is unhelpful. Even for students who feel this way, peer review can still be a useful process because it is not only the feedback a writer gets that makes peer review valuable, but also the opportunity to read and, more importantly, critique other students’ work. The exercise of analyzing and explaining how a peer tackles an assignment—or fails to—should make a writer think more deliberately about his or her own work. U-M instructor Jeremiah Chamberlin has written a helpful short essay about this aspect of peer review.
Evaluating Peer Review as an Instructor
After your students complete peer review, you likely will want to gauge its effectiveness. There are various ways to go about doing this. One is to collect rough drafts with final drafts and do a quick comparison of them (consider using the “Merge Documents” feature in Word if you collect the papers electronically)—did peer review inspire the kinds of revision you wanted? You can also ask students to write a brief response to peer review, explaining how they think it went, which advice they took, and what was most useful and why. If you ask them to give you this information, they will likely want to know what you think of their decisions. Finally, if you plan to use peer review multiple times during your course, it will be useful to give your students feedback on the quality of their responses to help them improve their commenting skills.
Ideally, you should offer them written feedback on their comments to others (details about what they did well and about where their feedback might have been made clearer or more specific). In addition, you might choose to grade their feedback as an incentive to help them improve. An example of a simple rubric that could be used to grade peer review letters or forms can be found in Supplement 9: “Grading Criteria for Peer Critiques.” For helpful guidelines to grading peer review letters or forms by multilingual writers, see Supplement 9b: “Grading Criteria for Peer Critiques of L2 and L1 Writers.”
A Dilemma of Competing Values
Well into the fall semester of 2011, when I first assigned my class to write on the open web, I discovered a dilemma. On one hand, I had praised the pedagogical virtues of requiring my students to share our writing with the public. The reasons were both principled and pragmatic. The object of a liberal arts education is to fully engage with ideas that differ from our own in order to “free the mind of parochialism and prejudice,” I told my students, quoting from our college mission statement. One of the best ways to improve critical thinking and writing skills is to post work in public, beyond the four walls of the classroom, and to invite others to respond. Our prose has greater potential to improve when we author for real audiences (not just the professor), and revise our work in consideration of thoughtful feedback and alternative points of view. On the other hand, all students deserve—and are legally entitled under U.S. law—some degree of privacy in our educational institutions and ownership over the words they have authored. I was aware of these general issues due to my graduate training in educational policy, and as a digital scholar I had recently drafted an intellectual property statement for essays voluntarily submitted by contributors for another open peer-reviewed book at that time. But as a college educator, I was searching for an ethical way to balance the competing values of public writing and student privacy in my classroom.
Making student writing more public is not a new issue, and several faculty and librarians have devised ways to achieve this goal within legal guidelines. Some solutions are very low-tech. Down the hall from my office, for instance, a philosophy professor occasionally tapes anonymized student papers, with his comments, on the wall for other students and passersby to read. Elsewhere on my campus, faculty assign students to post essays and comment on other students’ work on password-protected course sites, or even deliver poster presentations at campus-wide events. Some academic units require senior thesis students to upload their final works into the library digital repository, where they have the option to limit readership to the college network or open it to the public. Some students volunteer to write for the college newspaper or literary publications, and a few publish their own blogs. Furthermore, a small number of students are invited to co-author scholarly journal articles or book chapters that may appear in print or online. But my pedagogical goal differed from the campus norm because I wanted all students in my mid-level undergraduate course to publish their writing on the public web, preferably under their real names, yet to retain control over their own words.
Current U.S. student privacy law is grounded in FERPA, the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act of 1974, and its subsequent amendments. Greater awareness of this federal law has sharply curtailed past practices of openly posting student grades on a department bulletin board, or leaving graded papers for students to pick up on a hallway table, where anyone can flip through them. But exactly how the pre-Internet FERPA law applies to student writing on the public web is not perfectly clear. One crisis that prompted my dilemma in November 2011 was Georgia Tech’s decision to erase class wikis with student writing on grounds that it violated FERPA. The Georgia Tech decision was controversial because FERPA does not directly address the issue of student writing on the public web. For example, most colleges and universities interpret FERPA to prohibit the public disclosure of class rosters, as this is more detailed academic information than allowed in the standard “directory information” exemption of the law. In this sense, a faculty member who requires students to write on the public web, using their full names, effectively opens up the class roster for all to see. But does the law permit faculty to require students to publish student writing to the public web if names are optional?
Since I am not a lawyer and have no legal expertise in this subject, I looked for guidance on how other academics interpret FERPA. My general understanding at that time (supported by subsequent writings by Kevin Smith and others) suggested that I may require students to post their writing in public as a course assignment (especially if my syllabus clearly states this in advance), but I may not require students to attach their names. Similarly, other students and I may publicly comment on writing, but all grades must be delivered privately to the student. Based on my layperson’s understanding of FERPA, I wrote up the following statement for my online syllabi, which explains my motivating principle behind public writing, while affirming students’ rights to control their own words, with instructions on how to do so. See the statement with visuals and links in context.
This course requires students to post their writing on the public web because our ideas become clearer and more valuable when we share them and receive feedback from others. Unless marked otherwise, all content on this site is freely shared by Jack Dougherty and students under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 license. This means that the author(s) listed in the byline holds the copyright, but content may be freely adapted and redistributed under the same terms, if the original source is cited.
Although all student posts are publicly viewable and searchable, all grades are private and accessible only by the individual student, in accordance with the federal Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). If a student desires additional privacy on the public web, s/he may publish posts for this course using only a first name, or initials, or a pseudonym approved by the instructor. If a student needs additional privacy, please speak with the instructor to arrange accommodations.
After an assignment has received a grade, students also have the right to change its visibility (to password-only, or private) or delete it from the site entirely. Students who co-author a post must reach this decision jointly. In turn, the instructor promises to maintain student posts until the course is offered again (or longer, if feasible), so that students have the option to link to their work on their resumes or personal websites. Additionally, the instructor will moderate and remove any inappropriate comments on student work on the class site.
Nowadays, when introducing this policy to my class, it is accompanied by a brief “Google Yourself” demonstration, usually by a volunteer student who has enrolled in one of my previous courses with web writing assignments. The volunteer types her or his full name (sometimes with the college name, if the surname is a common one) into Google Search on the classroom computer projector unit to find out where her or his prior coursework appears in the search rankings. The student’s results usually appear within the top five listings. Judging from the audible gasps, several students are surprised by the outcome—and it still surprises me that some so-called “digital native” millennials do not already know this—and I briefly explain how Google’s PageRank algorithm favors human-created links, particularly those from educational institutions. We briefly discuss the pros and cons of listing their full name, first name, or a pseudonym in the byline, and I offer two real examples. In the first case, a former student published a web essay under her full name, which helped her to earn a prestigious internship with a non-profit organization. In the second case, another former student published a web essay on a controversial legal topic, and initially decided to identify herself only with initials in the byline to reduce the risk of detection by authorities, then deleted it after the course ended. To wrap up the lesson, I demonstrate how students have control over how to display their name in their user profile settings of our site, and ask them to make an informed decision when assigning their first post. While this public-private side lesson takes only five minutes during the first day of class, the power to name oneself—or not—on the web lasts far longer.
How have students responded to the public-private policy? After implementing this change in 2011, I tracked responses by a total of 71 students in two different classes over two years. Both classes enrolled mid-level undergraduates from my academic unit and affiliated departments. Educ 308 Cities Suburbs and Schools is an elective seminar, and Educ 300 Education Reform, Past and Present is a required survey course for Educational Studies majors, which also counts for major credit in American Studies and Public Policy & Law. For all classes, I reviewed the students’ final web essays to examine how they exercised their right to display their names in the byline or remove their writing from the class site, months after the class concluded (as of September 2013). Overall, the vast majority of students (87 percent) elected to display their full names on their public essays, while far smaller percentages chose to limit their essay by password, list themselves by first name only or a pseudonym, or removed the essay from the class website after the class ended. While the privacy protections are occasionally utilized, most of my students opt to modify their profile on our college’s WordPress system from the default setting (their network username such as jsmith3) to their full name.
How Students Elected to Display Bylines or Protect/Remove Final Web Essays, by percent
|Ed 308 (2011)||17||71%||18%||12%|
|Ed 308 (2012)||11||100%|
|Ed 300 (2012)||23||91%||4%||4%|
|Ed 300 (2013)||20||90%||5%||5%|
If You Build It, Will They Come. . . and Comment?
In addition, some students express pride in their web writing by voluntarily adding brief “about the author” biographical statements at the end of their web essays to make more personal connections with readers. Other students demonstrate ownership over their works by including links to their essays in e-portfolios, job letters, or requests to other professors to admit them into advanced courses. When students discover ways to engage with broader audiences with their words, particularly in ways that I never intended or foresaw, it reminds all of us of the importance of writing for people other than the professor.
What if no one actually reads what I wrote? That may be the greatest fear of public writing on the web today. An empty comment box heightens this phobia, by suggesting (mistakenly) that the absence of visible feedback means that a writer’s words did not successfully generate a public response. By comparison, print authors do not experience this fear to the same degree. If no one thumbs through your obscure journal article or checks out your weighty tome from its dusty shelf, there is little evidence that your work has gone unread, except perhaps for library databases and citation metrics. For better or worse, web authors tend to rely on readers’ comments for validation that our words have been seen and have value.
While introducing students to academic web writing over the past two years, I have experimented with different strategies for cultivating external readers and commenters. Mark Sample and other thoughtful educators have designed better blogging assignments and commenting roles for students in their classes. But my focus has been on public engagement with readers outside our classroom walls. How might we build richer connections between students and broader audiences?
One experiment was the laissez-faire approach. During the spring 2012 semester of my Educ 300 Education Reform, Past & Present class, I did absolutely nothing to attract readers to my students’ web writing. I did not email, tweet, nor promote their existence. In total, the entire class received precisely one external comment, or technically a “pingback” notification that one student’s essay had been listed as an “online article that may be of interest” to readers of an academic journal. While the absence of comments may suggest that my students had few readers, the web statistics tell a very different story. To avoid counting active student use, I tabulated web hits during the six-month break in this spring course, from mid-May 2012 through December 2012. Nearly 25,000 unique users visited our non-advertised course site. While most of these hits quickly bounced away from the site, and may have been robot web crawlers, most web traffic was driven by Google search queries on specific topics, which suggested significant interest by real readers. For example, the most popular student web essay, “Was Hurricane Katrina Good for the Education of Students in New Orleans?” attracted over 6,000 unique page views during this period, peaking on the seventh anniversary of the storm in late August 2012. Other widely-viewed student web essays—on topics such as community service in higher education, classroom technology, and the history of disability education law—attracted fewer unique page views (800 to 2,000), but retained visitors on the page for longer periods of time (between 5 to 7 minutes, on average). Of course, the quantity of hits is not necessarily linked to the quality of the student essay, but the average length of time spent by visitors on our course site suggested that, despite the absence of visible comments, my students had successfully engaged the public through their writing.
A second experiment in public engagement was to commission recent alumni to serve as guest commentators on student web essays. At the conclusion of the Educ 308 Cities Suburbs & Schools seminar in Fall 2011, I invited two recent Trinity College graduates (Claudia Dresser ’10 and Devlin Hughes ’09) to split a set of ten student web essays, post public comments based on our seminar’s evaluation criteria, and then afterwards, meet the students in person to discuss the feedback they had delivered. The guest evaluators also privately shared with me their numerical scores for each essay, and with college funding I paid each a modest stipend of $150 for their time. As expected, these carefully selected commentators wrote substantive remarks that focused on desired aspects of expository student writing, such as the insightfulness of arguments, persuasive use of evidence, and effective integration of digital elements. While the guest evaluators posted at least one substantive comment per web essay, this exercise did not spark additional comments nor noticeably increase web traffic (about 3,000 unique visitors, averaging over 1 minute per page during the off-season from mid-December 2011 thru August 2012), perhaps due to the narrow focus of this specialized seminar. Still, the quality of reader feedback always beats the quantity of readers.
A third experiment expanded upon the guest evaluator model to include student peers at other liberal arts colleges as part of a planned academic exchange. In Fall 2012, the second year of my Educ 308 Cities Suburbs & Schools seminar web writing assignment, a group of students from nearby Wesleyan University and I made a deal. The co-organizers of a student-taught course, Sociology 419: Education Policy in the United States, (Sydney Lewis ’14, Catherine Doren ’13, and Andrew Ribner ’14) invited me to deliver a guest lecture at their campus. In return, they arranged for the fifteen Wesleyan students in their course to divide up the work of guest evaluating seven web essays published by my Trinity students, based on our evaluation criteria, during a five-day period near the end of the semester. Furthermore, two of the co-organizers agreed to review all of the essays and guest evaluator comments, and to privately send me their numerical scores, which I averaged together as the assignment grade, to emphasize the importance of writing for real audiences beyond the instructor. Given that our two campuses are so close geographically, yet our students seem to rarely interact outside of athletic competitions, I was intrigued but nervous about this experiment, as the two groups never met face-to-face or even via videoconference. Overall, a vast majority of the guest student commenters made substantive remarks on my students’ writing, and while not as in-depth as the two recent alumni commentators the prior year, the level of public engagement by arranged, yet unpaid readers made the exercise worthwhile.
In sum, my approach to resolving the pedagogical dilemma between public writing and student privacy leaves some questions unanswered. Where is the line that divides instructor comments on students’ public posts versus the private act of evaluating them? Should student writing be evaluated by other students? What would happen if a student agreed to post an essay, but objected to sharing it under the Creative Commons site license? These issues and others are not fully resolved. Nevertheless, while I do not argue that web writing is appropriate for every class, these initial results should challenge liberal arts faculty to consider news ways of engaging our student writers with the public, while protecting their privacy.
About the author: Jack Dougherty is an associate professor of educational studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, who tweets about web writing at @DoughertyJack.
How to cite:
Jack Dougherty, “Public Writing and Student Privacy,” in Web Writing: Why and How for Liberal Arts Teaching and Learning, ed. Jack Dougherty and Tennyson O’Donnell (University of Michigan Press/Trinity College ePress edition, 2014), http://epress.trincoll.edu/webwriting/chapter/dougherty-public.
See an earlier version of this essay with open peer review comments.