Students as peer-editors

My students are working on research papers about inventions or chemical processes set mostly during the Industrial Revolution. I was wondering if you had any suggestions about peer editing.
—Jaime, Goffstown, New Hampshire
Examining and commenting on each other’s writing can be a meaningful learning experience for students. By looking at others’ writing, students can get insights into their own work. I’m sure we’ve all experienced writing something we thought was very clear only to have someone else raise questions or point out errors and inconsistencies. For those who struggle to write well, this is an intermediate step (formative) before the teacher’s evaluation and feedback (summative).
Peer editing is not about students correcting assignments or giving “grades” to each other. It can and should go beyond the simple process of proofreading. Peer editing (sometimes referred to as peer review, but not in the same context as a scholarly journal) is part of a formative process in which students provide feedback and suggestions on written work (and the process can be used for other types of projects or displays). Students have an opportunity to read each other’s work to see other ways of writing and communicating and then reflect on and revise their own, using the feedback they receive. Having one’s work reviewed by someone other than the teacher provides a wider audience for the work.
This is not a timesaver for teachers! The teacher has to introduce the project, use class time for the review process, monitor the students, and provide an opportunity for students to revise their work. And the teacher still has to read the final versions. But I found that this authentic type of collaboration worthwhile.
This could be a challenge if your students have not done this before or did so in a superficial manner (“I liked it. You did a good job.”). Some students may hesitate to offer suggestions to peers. And some students may have never received specific feedback from their teachers—just a letter grade and a generic “good job” or “needs work.”

You’ll need a rubric emphasizing the science content and processes rather than a focus on neatness or formatting (not that these are unimportant!). Keep it simple to start; I used a simple checklist rather than a four-level analytic rubric. This also removes any temptation for students to grade one another.
Before students try this, display several examples of writing (these can be from previous years, other classes, or your own writing). One example should be well written and others should need some revisions. Have the students read the writing first before commenting. Model with the class how to respond and ask for their suggestions. Provide examples of words to avoid, such as boring, bad, or stupid. The ReadWriteThink website (see below) suggests three components to guide the editing process along with ideas for feedback. It helps to have some “sentence starters”:

  • Commendations (compliments)—“The way you organized the data is effective because…” “The labels on the diagrams are….” “Here’s how your evidence supports your argument or conclusion:…”
  • Suggestions (recommendations)—”Have you thought of…?” “Could you explain why you said this?” “Instead of the word ____, you could use ____ to be more accurate.”
  • Corrections—Here’s where the reviewer points out errors in spelling, punctuation, or usage.

It may take a while for students to become comfortable with the process. Monitor the class to determine what works best: pairs or groups of three or four, having students put their comments directly on the documents or use a separate form. I suggested student-reviewers read the work out loud to uncover awkward sentences or incomplete thoughts. On hearing their work, the writers often would say, “That’s not what I meant.”
After the editing session, model how to revise with the examples you used in the introduction and provide students with time to make revisions. On the final version, you could ask students how their peer(s) helped them revise their work. (This would be an interesting action research project).
If you have students who struggle with writing or are English language learners, choose students who understand their situation as their partners, sit in on the discussions to assist the students, or use the time to provide extra guidance for them.

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