So Many Students, So Little Time: Using Peer Review Sessions to Workshop Student Research Papers

by Danielle DeNigris

Student research papers are rarely enjoyable for neither the students who write them nor the instructors who grade them. Many instructors, including myself, may have assigned these papers at the end of term and have been frustrated with the outcome—perhaps due to rampant use of plagiarism, disorganization, or the use of random facts. Why might this be? For one, there are many steps and skills that go into writing a good research paper and the ability to do so may be more difficult for the novice, undergraduate student than we, as instructors, may even realize. Specifically, writing across the curriculum researcher John Bean (2011) highlights three things that have a significant impact on student research projects:

(1) Student misconceptions about research: Students may enter your course having little experience writing a research paper. Their only experience may be from high school in which they were asked to write “all-about” papers in which they jammed as much information about a topic from textbooks and reference books that they could find.

(2) Faculty misconceptions about student researchers: Many faculty members may believe that students should have already learned to write research papers in their first-year English Composition class. However, although students are taught this style of writing, research papers vary greatly across disciplines and genres. An English research paper will no doubt be dramatically different from a Psychology or Biology or Sociology research paper.

(3) Difficulty of the sub-skills embedded within research projects: Research requires an understanding of the discipline itself, the types of questions that are appropriate to research, how to find scholarly sources, how to incorporate and properly cite these sources, and an understanding of the audience and genre of the paper. These skills can be difficult to grasp and therefore may seem overwhelming to the inexperienced undergraduate researcher. In my experience, I have found that only a handful of students demonstrate the ability to incorporate, interpret, and properly cite relevant sources in their papers clearly and effectively.

How peer review sessions can help YOUR STUDENTS:

Peer review sessions can help students understand the steps involved in writing a “good” research paper and enables students to talk through their ideas with other students. Bouncing ideas off of another student allows for feedback on the clarity of their work and provides an idea of how readers may respond to their writing. Peer review sessions also expose students to a range of perspectives, rather than just the instructor’s, similar to the peer-review process for scholarly journals (but with more scaffolding!).

How peer review sessions can help YOU:

Incorporating peer review sessions into the classroom can help to cut down time spent on reading drafts and grading papers. By having students work on each other’s drafts you won’t need to spend time reading each draft. Instead, you can simply read students’ notes and comments from the peer review sessions to determine where your students are at as a whole and any problems they may be having with the writing process (You can then address this issues in class). You can also make an informed decision regarding the need to meet individually with select students who may be struggling (For more information on strategies for successful one-on-one conferences see last week’s blog post).

“I have a large class. Now what?”

Sometimes in large classrooms it is hard to keep all students motivated and on-task. Try having students turn in their notes about each of their partners’ papers at the end of the class to be graded as a low-stakes assignment or participation grade. By requiring students to produce something at the end of the peer review session, it helps to keep them focused. Then hand these back to the student whose paper it refers to so that they can use this when writing or editing their papers.

Additionally, make sure to move all throughout the room to field any questions students have while they are working. By having structured peer review sessions, you can limit the amount of “what should I be reviewing?” questions you would need to answer allowing you to observe more groups.

Implementing peer review sessions: Two examples

The examples provided below are in no way extensive. Peer review sessions can be a wonderful way to workshop research proposals, annotated reference lists, and outlines. Additionally, the examples provided below can be modified to fit the needs of any writing assignment (e.g., term papers, reaction papers, low-stakes assignments, summaries, etc.), not just the research paper.

Example 1: WORKSHOPPING THE THESIS

Assign students to pairs and have them take turns asking each other the following questions:

  • What question is your paper going to address?
  • Why is this idea interesting to research? How does it fit within the field or body of literature?
  • What is your one sentence answer to the research question your paper addresses? Note to Students: If the writer doesn’t have a good thesis statement yet, you can move on to the next question and come back to this one. At that point you may be able to help them develop a thesis statement.
  • What is the support for your thesis? Talk me through your argument and explain any ideas you have so far. Note to Students: The writer should do most of the talking, however, you should respond with suggestions, bring up additional ideas, ask questions, play devil’s advocate, etc.

Example 2: WORKSHOPPING THE DRAFT

Assign students to groups of four (or combine two pairs from example 1). Have students email a copy of their draft to their group members prior to the peer-review session. Each student should then come to the peer review session having read their group members’ drafts.

  • Have students make three columns on three separate sheets of paper (one for each paper they will review) with three headings: +, -, and ?

+

-

?

In this column, note aspects of the draft that worked well (e.g., clear thesis statement, proper formatting, strong evidence supporting the thesis, etc.) In this column, note aspects of the draft that were problematic or any negative reactions you had while reading (e.g., unclear ideas/writing style, weak evidence, improper formatting, etc.) In this column, note any questions or comments you had while reading the paper (e.g., places that need clarification or more development.)
  • Students do this for one draft at a time. After the first draft is commented on, each student takes turns explaining to the writer what he or she wrote down in the three different columns.   At this point the reviewers do not give advice, they only comment and the writer jots down any notes while listening to the reviews.
  • After each of the three reviewers has spoken, the writer can then engage them in conversation about suggestions for review.
  • The group then repeats this process for the remaining drafts.

General Tips: Encourage students to reformulate their ideas through conversation with their partner/group rather than reading from their notes/drafts. Talking through a project can help students who are struggling with the development of their arguments to get feedback on the clarity of their work and suggestions for improvement.

Improve Student Writing with One-on-One Conferences

by Chris A. Eng

Teachers: it’s nearing the end of the semester and you’re probably fretting about your students’ final project. Even though this assignment factors heavily into their overall grade, it’s difficult to set aside time in the classroom to guide your students through the writing and research process. Moreover, reading and commenting on individual drafts can be overwhelming. Try tackling the final project with one-on-one writing conferences.

Individual students conferences can be used for a variety of purposes and for classes of different sizes and fields. In these meetings, students may be more willing to raise questions and concerns. Conversely, you as an instructor may learn about the elements of your teaching that are most and least effective as well as what might need further clarification in the classroom.

Student conferences can be immensely valuable as long as you put in the right prep-work and structure to maximize their effectiveness. Follow these steps!

Step 1: Incorporate These Meetings into Your Class Schedule

To give a concrete scenario, this post will show how you can tailor conferences toward giving feedback on drafts for a writing assignment. Here are a two possible ways for formatting individual student conferences for smaller classes of 15-25 students.

Consider holding the student conferences over two class sessions. Divide the class into 10-15 minute blocks (possibly extend the meetings into your office hours). Print out the list of times and have students sign up for a specific block. Tell them to arrive early and that these meetings are not optional.

  • Repurpose class-time—sometimes our students are overwhelmed with midterms and assignments to the point that they are not quite motivated to contribute and participate in classroom discussions. If you have the option, consider cancelling two classes and scheduling 10-15 minute meetings with each student. Meanwhile, give them a focused assignment to make sure that they are working on a specific portion of their final project when they are not meeting with you. You may ask them to: find and read two sources; write annotations for two sources; watch a lecture online and post to the course website.
  • Keep your class engaged with other work: Following a two class session model, one day can be used for peer review and the other during a visit to the computer lab, in which students work on their research paper (looking up/reading articles and/or writing). As the entire class works, meet with students one-on-one in the front of the classroom.

Step 2: A Little Prep-work Goes a Long Way

Address Baseline Questions Before the Meeting

Spend about 10-15 minutes a class or two before the conferences discussing the assignment again. No matter how thoroughly you went over the assignment prompt the first time around, new questions will inevitably arise for students as they start to approach the project. Ask students to tell you what they’re expected to accomplish in this assignment. You might be surprised by how many different answers you get.

Take the time to talk through and clarify any questions with the class as a whole. Tell your students that now is the time to discuss any confusion about the assignment in general and that you would not be answering these questions in the conferences (which will be dedicated toward their individual projects).

Based on this conversation, feel free to list out several components of the assignment that they MUST know and understand. This way, students will come into the conference with the necessary baseline understanding of the assignment AND you won’t need to repeat answers to simple questions for each individual meeting.

Have Students Come Prepared with a Draft and Questions

This is a good opportunity to make sure that your students are making progress with the writing (and not saving it until the last minute). Ask them to come into the meeting with a draft that is no less than 2 pages long. Encourage them to try and formulate a thesis and basic structure/outline of their argument in this draft. Then, tell them to take a few minutes to carefully read over and review their draft before the meeting.

Ask them to formulate three/four specific questions about their paper that they would like you to address. Specify that these questions must be focused and demonstrate their critical self-evaluation of the draft. Responses will not be given for generic questions like “what do you think?” or “how’s my thesis?”

Step 3: Structure the Meeting

Engage in a dialogue with the student, but primarily as a listener.

1) Read the draft silently while giving students the following task: write out your thesis and main points, then write down the main problems you see with your draft

Focus on high-order concerns (such as argument, ideas, evidence, and organization) instead of grammar, mechanics, and style. Also, jot down three or four key issues that seem most prevalent (rather than copy-editing the draft).

2) Ask the student to report back (on thesis, main points, and main problems)

3) Engage with her/his take as you report back some of your key observations

Provide positive feedback to encourage them. Yet, give an honest assessment about how to move forward.

4) Collaborate in setting an agenda for addressing key problems

After hearing what the student as identified as the main problems, share the key problems you’ve observed, such as thesis construction, development of the argument, selection and analysis of evidence. Then, ask the student to select 2 main issues to discuss further for the meeting

5) In discussing these key problems, give the student several concrete tasks for moving forward with the writing

Step 4: Follow Up!

When the class reconvenes as a whole following the individual meetings, take some time to reflect on any general patterns you’ve observed. Make note of the good work that they’ve put in so far, while reassuring them that writing is difficult and that it takes time to perfect. Also, take the opportunity to address any common problems or difficulties faced by the students.