Revising My Peer Review Sessions: Creating a “Peer Tutor” Experience in the Classroom
by Rebecca Weaver (firstname.lastname@example.org)
This semester, I tried a new approach to peer review that I based on a typical peer tutoring session in a writing center. Peer review is always a challenge, because there is so much to keep in mind or to account for, so many things at tension: should students get multiple peer views of their work, or would a deep and sustained reading be better? How much time do we have? Will this or that version work better? How many students have a draft? Approach or method often depends on the assignment, the class, and the professor. I tend to opt for a variety of PR approaches throughout the semester, giving students a glimpse of how writing feedback happens in the real world; like writing itself, writing feedback is always context- and audience-specific.
I started my pedagogical training as a peer tutor in writing my junior year in college. As a grad student and as a post-doc working in other writing centers, I helped train peer tutors. While peer tutor training in writing centers is intensive, reflexive, and continual, peer review in a class is immediate, temporary, and often ends with the class session. Yet for a peer review session in any classroom setting dealing with writing, there is much in the typical writing center peer tutoring approach which can be mined. The peer reviewers in my class didn’t have the training and assessment that peer tutors often have, so I prefaced our peer review session with specific oral and written instructions designed to emulate the student-centered praxis of peer tutoring.
Overall, this went well; students reported that they felt like they got a lot of work done in these sessions, especially those who didn’t bring much “to review” to class. Next time I do this, I will preview the session more in advance so that students will have a better idea what to expect. I will probably also give more time to each duo.
Here are the directions I gave to a recent class, with commentary & rationale for each item.
You will be in groups of two. This peer review session will take 20 minutes for each student, with 40 minutes total.
You will use the writing peer tutor/consultant approach to peer review, and each student duo gets a copy of the assignment sheet for reference.
Here is how each 20-minute session will go. One of you will be the writing consultant and one of you will be the student for 20 minutes, and then you’ll switch.
- The person in the “consultant” role will listen as the person in the “student” role talks about how they understand the assignment. The consultant will ask questions and double-check the assignment sheet.
This is standard in many writing centers as a way of entering into the session. It’s important that the “student” be able to articulate how they understand the assignment (I provided a few copies of the assignment sheet for reference). Looking at the assignment sheet together can help the “consultant” if the “student” is having trouble articulating or understanding the assignment.
Note: Peer tutors in writing are students, often recruited by professors or writing center coordinators/directors, at least in their second year of school, nominated on the strength of their performance in first-year writing courses. However, tutors are not chosen on the strength of their grades and overall written and oral communication skills alone. Writing center leaders look for potential tutors who can explain things to a variety of fellow students, for relatability to a diverse student body, for a healthy and recursive approach to the writing process, for their ability to collaborate, and for a friendly and accessible demeanor.
Peer tutors train and study intensively before their first tutoring sessions and continue to train (and be assessed by directors/coordinators) throughout their time as tutors. In some larger programs, potential tutors take a class in writing and writing center theory and pedagogy, including reading, writing, discussion, presenting, and closely observed and assessed practice tutoring sessions. Where there isn’t a class, new tutors do this training in the summer before Fall semester or for their first months in the position, often with a cohort of other new peer tutors. Once they become tutors, they’re closely supervised in their first sessions and they meet with the center director or coordinator regularly to discuss readings, issues, or center business. There is often a more experienced tutor to act as a mentor, and lead tutors/assistant directors will help train and will continually assess the younger tutors. Many peer tutors go on to become teachers themselves.
The term used for peer tutors changes depending on the center. Often, the term is something like “peer tutor” or “consultant,” sometimes used interchangeably.
While there wasn’t much time for anything more than very quick “on-the-job-training,” this peer review session did use some training through modeling (on the part of the instructor). I gave them specific and constructive language they could use as both the “peer tutor” and the “student,” and I would listen in to their conversations, intervening where I thought necessary.
On reflection I should have given them a bit more training ahead of time. A colleague suggested that before the first peer review next semester, I get some students to “role play” these sessions in front of the class. Since I am considering shifting more of my peer reviewing to this model, I will enact this suggestion early in the new term.
- The student will identify their major goal for the session, and may list a minor goal if there is time. Statements that help might be “I’m worried about_____in my paper,” “My biggest focus right now is__________,” “I feel like I need to work on________,” and so on.
Having students phrase their concerns this way keeps the control of the session in the students’ hands, supporting student agency and providing a goal for the session. While peer tutors may see an issue which they believe needs addressing in the student’s work, it’s vital that control of the goals of the session remain the student’s. Otherwise, students lose motivation and ownership over their own work, and they become distanced from the idea that they are responsible for their own growth and improvement as writers. This improvement depends on intrinsic (not external) motivation; without it, they see a peer review or peer tutoring session as just another assignment. A technique peer tutors use to good success in this situation is to say to the student: “I know you said you wanted to work on _________, but I have noticed an issue with______. If we have time, would you like to work on that, too?” The peer tutor needs to walk a fine line here; while they are in some ways more of an expert in writing than the student (moreso an expert in having a good writing process), they are not an expert in the student’s writing. Their job is to help the student with their immediate goals for the session, but also to help the student grow as a writer, and the student is the expert on the student.
Running a peer review session this way also supports the idea that there is no such thing as writing in general. A student will have very different goals for the paper in their history class than they will for the paper in their psych class, and the peer tutor’s job is to adjust.
- The major goal should align with the order of areas of concern on assignment sheet and the rubric: prioritize the “higher level” competencies first, and do NOT prioritize grammar and conventions unless you have spare time.
In my experience as a writing professor, when a faculty member from a different discipline complains about student writing, they often express concern about grammar and conventions, but as we talk, I discover that they’re actually more concerned with what writing professors call “higher order” concerns, such as thesis and argument development, use of sources or data, organization & structure, and paragraph development. As writing scholars such as George Hillock and Patricia Dunn have shown, students best learn grammar and conventions in the context of their own writing. The point here is not to avoid discussing grammar and convention concerns in a paper, but rather, to not make them the entire focus of a session (unless the student very clearly articulates that as their major goal for the session, often after a previous session where they worked on “higher order” concerns).
- Peer reviewers will not write on the student’s paper or screen–the control of the writing must be in the student’s hands at all times.
Again, this is about agency; a peer tutor’s job is not to “fix” the student’s paper for them, but to help the student become a better writer by learning how to address writing-process issues. Peer tutors can be tempted to take the paper from the student in order to quickly “show” them something on a sentence or paragraph. But I instructed the peer reviewers to resist this temptation and instead empower students to make changes.
- Peer reviewers should take notes on the session–the goals and concerns of the student, what you discuss, and so on.
I recommend that everyone keep writing gear nearby, in case they need to demonstrate something in writing, such as making a thesis statement more concise, but shouldn’t write on the student’s paper. If the student doesn’t want those notes at the end of the session, the tutor can use it for their session notes. (see below).
- Peer reviewers/tutors: your job is to help the student/your partner with their immediate goal, but also in the course of doing that, help your partner improve as a writer, to learn something or practice a skill which not only helps them with the current assignment but can help them with future assignments as well. This is collaborative in the sense that you are working together on a plan for achieving the “student’s” goals.
Writing is a recursive process: stages of writing, such as drafting, revising, editing, and free -writing, “loop back” on each other, and writers use feedback in ANY of those stages. When both the peer reviewer/tutor and the students understand writing as recursive, they avoid seeing a peer review or tutoring session as a transactional “fix-it” appointment which should take place at the same pre-ordained point in the writing. While the student should get help with a specific project and issue, they should also learn how to improve or deal with that issue in successive papers; in short, as Stephen North iterates, they should grow as writers.
- Read their draft/notes/outlines and focus your guidance on what could be done to strengthen what they already have. If they don’t have anything written down, help them brainstorm through discussion, freewriting, and notetaking. Help them end the session with some material they can build on or continue with (source bricks or an outline, for example), such as a list of actionable items.
This approach establishes compassionate ground. When students who don’t have a draft or even notes, and who may already be stressed about that, are met with a peer reviewer/tutor who starts with “how can I help?” or “what can we do together that will help you get a start on the paper?” the sessions tend to be productive, and the student leaves the appointment with confidence about their ability to complete the paper and with a plan for next steps. Peers who can relate to the experience of being “stuck” on a paper or not knowing where to start can reassure the student that they are not somehow defective or a bad student. It also helps that the peer, often the same age, and perhaps is in or was just in the class, is relatable.
- Call me over if you have any questions (I’ll be floating and listening).
In the immediate context of a classroom, I was available to answer questions or clear up confusion about the assignment. In a peer tutoring session, the instructor isn’t there, but other tutors and center leaders are. If the tutor and student get stuck, it’s common practice for the tutor to reach out to other tutors or a coordinator, who can see things from a different perspective.
- Don’t promise a grade.
In the context of this peer review class, I encouraged students to bring drafts to me after they had a chance to get another set of eyes on their work and make improvements. A peer reviewer’s job is not to grade–that is the professor’s job. Professors wrote the assignment and will assess the student’s ability to meet the requirements. Students are predictably anxious about grades, but peer reviewers/tutors must resist the temptation to try to lessen that anxiety by assuring students that they’ll receive particular grades. I reminded the class that students should bring drafts to a professor after peer review, not just to ask about grades, but to get another set of eyes on the paper.
- Do not contradict the professor.
Obviously, in the peer review session in my class, there was little danger of this, as we were all literally on the same page, and I continually ask my students if they have questions about the assignment. However, it’s not uncommon to see or hear something in the professor’s written instructions (or as relayed by the student) that seems unproductive, confusing, or contradicting the peer’s instruction in writing. Sometimes, professors’ writing assignments are unclear, and they may have interesting preferences for papers or specific writing bugaboos. I recommended that my peer reviewers avoid making judgements about an assignment, contradicting the professor, or even giving the impression that they don’t agree with the professor’s directions), because doing so puts the student in a bad position. As the people with power in the session, when peer reviewers/tutors contradict the professor, they’re creating confusion, and essentially urging the student to do the same, at the expense of the student’s own grade for not meeting the needs of their audience.
- To get credit for this: write up “session notes:” these notes help peer reviewers/tutors remember what happened in a session. You will send these to both your student and to me. These don’t have to be long, but should include these items:
- what the student’s main worry, concern, or goal was
- what you did, discussed, modeled
- what the student learned or did in the session
- any other questions or discussed items
In a tutoring context, these “session notes” are kept for each student who visits and are regularly reviewed by a supervisor. They’re an important pedagogical tool for continued student growth in writing, but also for ongoing tutor training. In the class setting, the notes helped the students remember what they talked about, including a plan for “next steps.” In the context of the class peer review, they helped me understand common areas of confusion or writing issues as they emerged, which is helpful as I’m planning instruction for the next project.
I was really pleased with my students’ notes here. Many of them took the opportunity provided by this format to reiterate what they’d gone over and to provide guidance for future work. They reaffirmed my trust in students’ ability and desire to be helpful to each other. I overheard many good and thoughtful conversations happening around the room. It was a pleasure to witness.