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Peer Reviews

Building A Community Through Peer Review

Orchestrating successful peer review exchanges takes a lot of work. Now, though, as I read final drafts, I can see the rich results of that effort: stronger writing, stories that matter, and a community in which to share them.

Melissa M. Donegan

I teach writing. In the classroom, we analyze arguments and rhetorical techniques, linger on pressing issues, laugh, and get to know each other. The students can have meaningful conversations in discussion forums on Camino, but building community online requires more effort. Peer review offers a valuable opportunity for students to feel connected.

Many students report that their experiences with peer review have been fruitless. As one Advanced Writing student explains, "I was nervous editing someone's work because I didn't want to come off as callous, and I thought that by only focusing on the positive, I was sparing their feelings. … However, I was doing my peers a disservice by not providing constructive criticism. They were never going to grow as writers if the only feedback they were receiving was 'good job' or 'I like this.'" A second student writes, "In the past, I have found peer reviews to be of little help; however, the peer reviews that we did were always productive and helpful. ... I valued each opinion and enjoyed having another critical eye to help me strengthen my writing, because I often miss weak areas when revising on my own."

Yes, I have students who offer few meaningful comments, but most of the exchanges foster stronger writing--and community. In my CTW 2 course, the students adopted a tone of gratitude in asking for feedback: "Hi Harrison! Thanks for taking the time to look over my essay :)" and "Hi Danny. Thanks a ton for going over my draft! Right now I'm content with the amount of information I provide, but my editorial is pretty chunky, and I want to cut out any redundant information or sloppy writing to make it shorter. Any help you could offer with that would be greatly appreciated." When they complete their reviews, they maintain this positive approach: "Hi Katie, I enjoyed getting to go through your essay. You have a great start here. … That said, there were a number of areas where you could be more concise; I tried to point out most of those spots. Fixing this might give you some room to add a bit more detail to some of your paragraphs. ... Good luck with this paper (and other finals)!" This encouraging tone helps students stay open to feedback and feel supported in their efforts. 

Peer review also allows students to write for a wider audience. In her final reflection, an AW student concluded, "We all undoubtedly learned from each other’s stories and writing styles, and it was another good opportunity to interact with each other in the virtual learning environment." My Advanced Writing course has a theme of illness, loss, and recovery, and the students write about struggles with physical and mental illnesses and devastating losses. Many take the risk to share deeply personal essays. Then the magic begins. Two AW students discovered that they both suffer from social anxiety, and they felt relieved to realize their reader could relate. Another found in her partner's draft a familiar narrative of parental alcohol abuse. A CTW student whose dog had recently died was heartened to learn that a classmate has a dog of the same breed. 

While I relish watching these connections play out, I feel most rewarded when the students recognize this power in their reflections on their writing. One CTW 1 student writes, "To my surprise and jubilation, my peer review partner enjoyed reading my work, revising and complimenting all the way through the eight pages. I found his stories to be just as intriguing as he found mine." Similarly, an AW student explains, "the two peers assigned to edit my personal narrative and final essay shared similar experiences to mine, which made me feel safe and trust their recommendations on my writing. In turn, reading their narratives improved my own writing and made me feel less alone in my pain. The way they told their own stories influenced me to take more risks in recalling mine." Finally, a student writes of the job-application portfolio exchange, "I thoroughly enjoyed the peer review process--working with other students provided me with great insight on ways I can improve my own writing. … I enjoyed editing my classmates' work as well: I had fun helping them highlight their accomplishments." 

Orchestrating successful peer review exchanges takes a lot of work. Now, though, as I read final drafts, I can see the rich results of that effort: stronger writing, stories that matter, and a community in which to share them. 


About the Contributor 

Melissa M. Donegan graduated from Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, and received her M.A. and Ph.D. in Nineteenth-Century British Women’s Literature from the University of Iowa. She has been teaching at Santa Clara since 2010. Her Critical Thinking and Writing classes investigate themes of home, stuff, and sustainability with an emphasis on epistolary texts. She also teaches “Writing Well(ness): Narratives of Illness, Loss, and Recovery,” an Advanced Writing course. On her quarantine hikes in the foothills of South San Jose, she has savored seeing coyotes, quails, Cooper’s hawks, and rattlesnakes, who remind her to slow down and pay attention.