Peer Editing Tips: 3 reasons peer review isn’t working (+ how to fix it)

foundational pedagogy Apr 07, 2020

Peer editing, like every classroom practice, must be taught. The peer editing tips in this post will help you give your students the guidance they need to take their peer editing to the next level.

To plenty of learners, the mere mention of ‘peer review’ brings on all the classic symptoms: the audible groan, the predictable eye-roll, the suddenly ‘busy’ demeanor.  Anything to assume an outward distaste for a classically dreadful task.

Meanwhile, plenty of teachers feel the same way in issuing the task.  

Quite frankly, students have a hard time seeing places that need improvement in their own writing at any level; so how can we expect them to spot errors in each others’ work?

Meanwhile, they tend to dash through assigned tasks as quickly as possible, in ceaseless effort to ‘get it over with’.

It’s no wonder we ask ourselves:

Is peer review even worth the effort--and the precious class time?

For generations, peer review has been perceived as the mundane task of fixing every grammatical error or spelling mistake, and generally doing what feels like the teacher’s job: to give feedback on someone else’s writing. 

Parroting past teachers, our students valiantly take up their red pencil or pen.  Armed with a semi-incomprehensible writing rubric, they conjure an air of purposeful commentary as they scrawl in the margins: ‘vague,’ ‘upgrade transitions,’ ‘needs support.’ 

Followed, of course, by the usual massacre of mechanical adjustments young writers are so keen to unleash.

(That is, unless their feedback partner outwits them in the writing department.  In which case, very few marks grace the page, including but not limited to ‘nice work,’ and ‘good point.’)

By the end of the period, learners trade back papers and wonder--alongside their teacher--what has actually been accomplished at all.

So what gives? 

I think we can agree there's definitely value in peers working things out collaboratively and on their own level.

Not to mention, if peer-to-peer feedback sessions could be more successful, it'd certainly take a lot of pressure off the teacher (while simultaneously relieving the weight of her tote bag!).

But how do we make this long-standing practice actually work at its fullest potential?

This post will consider 3 key issues standing in our way, and offer peer editing tips to pivot past these problems in order to reinvigorate this important part of the feedback loop.

ISSUE 1| the process of reviewing a peer’s work is an overwhelming one.

Following the dreaded paper-swap and that deep breath in (so much to read, so much to mark!), there’s an immediate sense of overwhelm that kicks into high gear for peer reviewers.

And there’s a reason for this.  Revising versus editing. They likely don’t know the difference.  

Now, we do, right?!  But because we’re so close to our own grading-genius, we often treat the difference as an unspoken obvious.  

The result?  Our young reviewers go to town making marks in both departments, and they get overwhelmed as a result.

(Unsurprisingly, this is a classic rookie-teacher mistake as well...the blood-red bath of comments that materialize as a result of trying to comment on ALL-the-things).

Our learners need to be clear that revising and editing are, in fact, two very different parts of the writing process.

In the real world, this is the equivalent of being a Copy Editor vs. a Line Editor, for instance. 

And it’s this critical nuance that can help us pivot our peer review.  So...

Editing involves adjustments to all things technical.  This includes mechanical and conventional errors regarding grammar, usage, spelling, and punctuation.  

Goals include: clarity and conciseness.

Whereas revision means to (quite literally) ‘re-see’ the written piece in new light.  This involves a careful review of the actual content, or substance. So it’s a stepping-back of sorts to consider things like: logical relay of the message, structuring of points.  

Goals include: logical development, depth, and engagement.

More often than not, our peer reviewers choose the 'editing' path because it feels more concrete.  They make adjustments to conventions, sentence structure, and word choice quite simply because they can produce these marks more plentifully; rather than the deep work involved in hammering away at the content.  

Long issue short, they’re all top-heavy on the editing, and super-scant on the revision.  

Pivot the Problem: peer editing tips for focusing students

Obviously breaking apart the review process into Revision versus Edits makes sense, but in this pivot strategy, we’re actually going to break the process into three manageable phases for our students.

Since Revision involves the actual substance of the work, it’s the one we’re going to double down on, so revising at the essay level and at the paragraph level.  Once 'Revisions' are complete, then students can work their way into the final phase of 'Edit', which occurs more so at the sentence-level.

Here are some questions your peer reviewers can ask and some actions they can take at each level:

PHASE I: Essay Level

  • In reading the essay as a whole, does it flow well?  Place a tick-mark in the margin each time your train of thought gets interrupted.
  • As you’re reading, do you feel like a portion of the essay might better serve the reader if it were relocated to a different spot?  Put an asterisk + an arrow to show where it might be better suited.
  • To what extent does the work contain all its component parts?
    • On a scale of 4 stars possible, rate the intro, body, and conclusion based on your understanding of what purpose these elements serve.  4 stars = exceeds your expectation, 3 stars = meets your expectation, 2 stars = let’s explore what’s missing, and 1 star = let’s revamp together.
    • The stars will trigger conversation and revision work for you and your partner hereafter.

PHASE II: Paragraph Level

  • To the left of each paragraph, identify the main point being expressed.
  • To the right of each paragraph, identify the type of strategy being used to support the point raised (ex. explanation, stats, examples, anecdotes, analogy, expert source reference, study, etc.)
  • Circle and/or link the language or key concept the writer uses to connect from one paragraph to the next.

PHASE III: Sentence Level

  • Mechanics: spelling, punctuation, capitalization, italicizing, quoting, citations, etc.
  • Grammar: common errors
  • Stylistic: sentence structure, word choice, description 
  • Does the writer use the most precise/nuanced language possible to deliver points, describe ideas, etc?

Again, I certainly wouldn’t have students working through all these phases at once (rookie mistake).  Instead, consider doing so in sips and in circuits.  

Get Inspired with these peer editing tips and activities

As a concrete example: you might have writers ‘speed-date’ their papers around the room, where the reviewers are *only* looking at a single thing such as rating how well the piece reads over all (via four stars!). 

Feel free to be a part of that circuit, or hold counsel until all peer reviewers are finished and have moved onto the next task for feedback.

Or…

Give peer reviewers a short time (like 3 minutes) to read a single part of their partner’s work and give some verbal feedback (reading as a writer or a reader, not an editor). 

Then give the reviewer three more minutes to process the feedback they gave and condense it into a written “tweet” (less than 280 characters) for the writer to use when revising. 

Offering the feedback in two ways helps the reviewer make sense of the point and deliver it in the most concise way possible (plus, they get a lil’ writing practice in this role, too!).

ISSUE 2 | Students don’t know what they’re looking for.


In teaching secondary Language Arts, we always hear the same questions from students surrounding peer editing:  “I don’t get what I’m supposed to be doing. Can you help me?” 

It's not that they don't know what to do, they just don't know what they're looking for.  So how do we anticipate and support their needs while still encouraging an independent approach? 

(i.e. one of the many hats we wear, that of Mind-Reader slash Doublethinker...)

The crux of the matter comes down to rubrics.  We use these tools because they provide the kind of criteria students need to figure it out, but the question now becomes: 

Which rubric is a ‘right fit’ for peer review, specifically? 

In essence, there are three basic types of rubrics; Jen Gonzalez has an excellent post that breaks each of these down thoroughly.  

But not all three are necessarily fit for peer-work purposes, so let’s use the ‘peer review’ lens to consider each.

The Holistic Rubric

This is the broadest of the three rubric types.  

In a left-hand column, you’ve got the various levels of performance (i.e. numbers, grade letters, stars, or phases like ‘exemplary’ versus ‘needs improvement’).  

And to the right of each level, there’s a cache of criteria predicating each.  (In other words, there’s a bunch of word vomit next to each score, as if all of those traits were created equal.)

As Gonzalez points out in her own article, holistic rubrics are great for the kind of writing assignments that need scored at a rapid rate (ex. the written component on SAT, state writing exams, etc.).

Not so useful for in-class peer work, however.  But more on that in a moment...

So, benefits-wise:

In the hands of the peer reviewer, a holistic rubric can feel like a whiz-tool because all the student has to do is score from big-picture standpoint, then swipe the basic language for use as written feedback (hence, ‘needs support’).

And to the person being critiqued, the whole, holistic approach feels pretty good because they want to know, after all, ‘what did I get?’. This document indicates that right away.

In reality, however...

This system pretty much sucks for peer review because there’s no tailored dialogue--written or spoken--as to how one might improve; and all production halts at that fixed score.

In other words, following a feedback session using a holistic rubric, the teacher can call for revisions all she wants, but that circled score is quietly building a mental block for the writer; and without specifics, improvement reaches an impasse. 

Speedy and streamlined?  Sure. Appropriate for the writing process?  Not so much.

Analytic rubrics

For this type of feedback method, the rubric breaks down the elements of the assignment into pieces, and a specific set of marks is attached to each of these.  Vertical columns indicate the various traits of the writing; horizontal rows indicate how well the student achieved each of these aspects.  

Indeed, this is the rubric *most* of us use today.  It also happens to be the kind that most college-bound programs and standardized exams use as well.

(Funny how that works)

The benefit in this case is that analytic rubrics give more nuanced feedback for the student.  And as a result, writers have a better indication of what it looks like to level up. 

But here’s the drawback.  And if you ask me, it’s a big one, so buckle up.

The feedback this rubric offers is still not enough to get writers beyond the reef of Mediocre.

And that’s because--like the peer reviewer who tries to juggle too much--it brings on a wave of overwhelm for the writer.

In other words, it assumes that if the student reads all the feedback in those--albeit organized--boxes, he/she will understand and apply that input. This is so not the case-entire. 

In fact, giving teens the tall order of reading multiple boxes across several categories with abstract text piling up...it’s like setting them loose on the ultimate level of Tetris and watching them get buried in swift defeat.

(Yet we ask ourselves…‘why don’t they just *read* the rubric?!’, but I digress.)

Now if you and I happen to be cut from the same teaching cloth, you’re likely saying, 

Oh, but we break down the rubric elements color-by-color.  And my students know the lingo forwards and backwards. We breathe our rubric like oxygen from Day One.’

I hear you. I see you. I want to believe it, too!  But I don’t totally buy it... 

I’ve used that glorious rubric *with fidelity* for courses I’ve taught (both advanced and standard curriculums).

And despite any story I told myself, the truth is this: it didn’t matter how many highlighters we used, no matter how well my students could recite that rubric on-command...  

All those words and abstract phrases were still an overload of information.  And as it turned out, time and time again, they’d pick a few--though not all--aspects to battle in the revision, leaving the rest to dwell in mediocrity.

Comprehensive? For sure!

Does it leave some skills left behind?

For sure!

Single Point Rubric

Last but not least, the single-point rubric.  It’s the one with the least wording on it (which seems counter-intuitive, right?), but has the most potential for formative practice and peer review.

For this rubric, there’s one column, right down the middle, which includes the guidelines for a competent piece of writing, whatever that looks like for the given assignment. 

So this column literally represents the midline of proficiency (Let’s be real, students are either nosing through the top score, or they’re sifting through the competent-enough column, which is this one).

Flanking each side of this middle-column are two blank columns, and this is the part that makes this rubric work well for peer review…

Student A: the peer reviewer

Student B: the writer

As Student A reads the written work of Student B, he/she will compare it against midline competency (the center column).  If the writing falls short of these guidelines, Student A will record related comments, suggestions, or other observations in the left-hand column.  If the writing exceeds the expectation of those midline traits, Student A will record comments in the right-hand column.

All they need to ask themselves is, 'what would make this better?' and/or 'what's making this so awesome?!'.

Instead of outlining every way students can “fail” the assignment, this type of rubric shows students where they need to go in order to do well, and it lets them know when they’re slipping below the standard. 

Now, some of you may be scratching your head, wondering why we would only outline proficiency and not excellence.

But here's the thing: by NOT outlining excellence on the rubric, it removes the 'ceiling' for students, leaving them to define what higher ground looks like. 

Pivoting the Problem: peer editing tips for dealing with the rubric

Sometimes, especially if the program we teach features a specific rubric for assessment, we get “stuck” in that one rubric, expecting it to fit every learning scenario, when it reality, another format might work much better based on the circumstance. 

Keep an open mind when applying rubrics to activities, and involve your students in the decision-making process as well.  Single-point rubrics can offer a solid baseline of expectation while challenging students to define ‘above’ and ‘below’ expectations from there.

(read- they will actually care about it a little more and remember it if they’ve had a hand in creating it!) 

In fact, having the whole class ‘norm’ the left and right columns of the single-point rubric (through Socratic discussion, for instance) can be a great way to crack open the kind of language students will then use during peer review.

ISSUE 3 | Students feel awkward giving constructive criticism.

Real talk for a moment. In a digital era, it’s a lot easier to speak your mind online than it is face-to-face, am-I-right? 

For our students, who do the bulk of their communicating via text or other digital messaging, it makes it all the more awkward to offer constructives to another peer who’s sitting just three feet away (one they might not even know, at that!).

Even as an adult, it’s hard to put into words the fine line between being warm-but-direct with feedback and being borderline rude, abrasive, callous, or offensive.

(It’s all in the way you say it, yeah? But what the heck does that mean?!)

Of course, there’s the compliment sandwich...one praise, followed by one critique, followed by another praise.  But this peer editing tip is more rudimentary than anything.

The next step would be to add in more layers of dialogue to the mix.  Something like PQP, or ‘Praise, Question, Polish’:

Praise: What is good about the writing? What should the writer not change? Why? 

Question: As a reader, what do you not understand? As a writer, what additional questions come to mind? 

Polish: What specific ideas do you have for improvement? 

When those offering feedback are formulating questions, for instance, they have to think critically about the gaps in the writing.  When they’re offering polish, they have to come up with logical strategies for revision.  

For the latter, it might even make sense to involve the peer reviewer in the writer’s revision grade for this reason.  That way, they understand the weight of their own words, and can see how their role (when played well) can have a direct impact on the outcome.  

(Kind of like when we give advice to our students and then see them using it...feels good, right?!)

Pivot the Problem: peer editing tips to eliminate the awkward

So how do we teach our students to master the art of the constructive critique? Give them loads of practice in peer review via low-stakes writing tasks (i.e. not a gigantic research essay).

Shrinking the process and increasing its frequency will make it much more manageable and familiar for your students, but at the same time, it’s still super challenging.

Case in point...

It was Mark Twain who wrote: ‘I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one.’  It takes way more time and effort to write with brevity than it does to write at length.

So the short, written assignments will definitely challenge your writers.  Meanwhile, asking your learners to engage consistently in the critiquing process helps peer reviewers get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Are these peer editing tips worth the class time?  Hell (to the) Yes.

To wrap it all up...

In some ways, less is sometimes more when it comes to heading up peer review. 

Revisited: Lessening the focus of the task helps minimize the overwhelm of having to mark it ‘all’. 

Lessen the rubric language, as well.  Too many words, and your students are drinking from the proverbial fire hose.  Too little, and they’re writing feedback on their peers’ papers like, ‘vague.’  

Aim for the middle, and you may have it just right: enough criteria to make the standard midline clear while leaving it up to students to self-direct what improvement might look like at its finest.

When it comes to critiquing practice, however, the more the mightier!  Give your students plenty of space to flex their constructive language muscles, and you just might resuscitate the dreaded peer-review process yet.

 

Looking for more collaboration ideas for your students, check out 6 Collaborative Brainstorming Strategies for High School Students.

 

[Did any of these strategies work well for you?  Share your wins on social media and tag me along the way!]

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