If peer feedback was good enough for the Brontë sisters, it’s good enough for us

The shift online provides new ways to harness the power of peer feedback to improve writing skills, say Sherry Wynn Perdue, Pam Bromley, Mark Limbach and Jonathan Olshock

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Oakland University,Scripps College,Peerceptiv
11 Oct 2021
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Peer to peer feedback, as used by the Bronte Sisters, is a crucial tool for improving writing skills in university students
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The art of writing, invented roughly 5,000 years ago, represents a blip in human history. It’s younger than agriculture, music and construction. And as recently as the US War of Independence in the late 1700s, most Americans couldn’t put pen to paper. In short: writing remains a new feat of technology. We’re still figuring it out. 

Despite its relative youth, writing has evolved into a vital skill. Today, we broadly recognise that citizenship requires the ability to read and write. Orwell put it thus: “If people cannot write well, they cannot think well, and if they cannot think well, others will do their thinking for them.”

Perhaps as importantly, writing is a key skill for professional success. Hiring managers, for example, are more likely to cite writing skills as “very important” for new hires than technological and quantitative reasoning skills or even creativity. If students leave campus without refined writing skills, we’ve done them a great disservice. 

Luckily, a recent survey suggests faculty believe that their most important task is teaching students to write. Time and technological constraints, however, often prevent every instructor from giving intensive feedback. This is why providing spaces for peer writing feedback is a vital component of the college experience.

The value of peer-to-peer writing feedback

Writing, at its best, is a social activity. This piece passed through multiple hands before arriving in the virtual pages of THE Campus. The authors of other pieces on this site will likely sing a similar tune. We know many eyes can sharpen prose. 

The same logic led to the evolution of writing centres on college campuses. Refining writing skills is a lifelong journey, and colleges recognise that these muscles must be exercised for all four years, across all corners of the curriculum. 

And while faculty and specialised instructors remain vital conduits between students’ thoughts and the logical distribution of words on a page, peer feedback has emerged as a core component of strong writing programmes, particularly in the modern university environment.

Last year, as Covid forced a shift to virtual and asynchronous learning, students lost the benefits of a centralised space dedicated to writing. Learners also juggling work and/or family obligations faced heightened scheduling challenges. These disruptions prompted many students to seek support from their peers. 

Peer feedback has been a common feature of strong writing for centuries. Emerson leaned on Thoreau for more than free lodging. The Brontë sisters didn’t change literature by chance. And feedback does more than smooth syntax. In the words of S. Kelley Harrell: “A good editor doesn’t rewrite words, she rewires synapses.” 

Peer feedback shows students the value of thinking in stages, from the uncertainty of rough drafts to the solidity of a completed work. It reminds students that they’re writing for readers, not themselves. And ongoing feedback throughout college busts the myth that a single first-year writing course is the beginning and end of prose development. 

A growing body of research supports the use of peer feedback and points to specific methodologies as having the most significant impact on writing improvement. Both the provision and receipt of feedback, for example, have been directly related to a growth in writing ability. And the quality of peer feedback can be enhanced when student reviewers are evaluated by each other based on  the helpfulness of their comments.

In the secondary setting, peer feedback operates better when reviews are anonymous and students are coached on managing conflicting reviews. And when students receive reviews from multiple peers, they are much more likely to implement the feedback. New technology offers the promise of easing the creation and enforcement of these parameters. 

Shaping peer writing feedback in a virtual world

Amid a shifting university landscape, where hybrid and online courses are increasingly common, creating virtual spaces for peer feedback can improve writing while fostering a sense of community among physically distant students. 

Peer feedback programmes also give students insight into others’ perspectives, which can offer real pedagogical value. The National Survey of Student Engagement, for example, has found that first-year students and seniors who interact more frequently with diverse peers engage in more complex learning activities and have more positive campus interactions. 

Notably, students are more successful when instructors adequately prepare them to deliver sound feedback. Without sufficient preparation, students may focus on minor editing issues or make unhelpful comments. Instructors may also sharpen the quality of reviews by modelling high-level comments to offer and questions to ask.

Instructors should also teach students that the review process is a conversation, not an audit. And peer rating of the quality of feedback creates a robust loop of accountability. The anonymity provided by current technological tools also reduces the emotional stakes. The easy management of documents in the cloud, the incentivised learner engagement and the higher volume of formative feedback are just a few of the ways sophisticated peer learning tools of today distinguish themselves from the clunky, logistically challenging peer review workflows of yesterday.

The beauty of prose, too, is that it can be easily shared in virtual settings free of the oddities and hiccups of video conferences. Asynchronous, virtual distribution of review assignments also avoids scheduling hurdles for student parents and others with work and family obligations. 

Peer feedback is, of course, just one component of a healthy cross-curricular writing programme. But it’s an invaluable resource.

In the long march of human history, writing isn’t much older than widgets or platforms or apps. We’re still mastering the art and science of writing, one generation at a time. But we know that writers don’t meet their full potential if they’re hunkered over their laptops alone. 

Feedback from faculty of all disciplines, as well as writing centre professionals, remains an irreplaceable component of the university writing experience. But if students are only writing, and never editing others’ work, they’re not actively engaging with either the writing assignment or their fellow learners. Cloud-based peer feedback allows all writers to engage in this process.

Thoughtful reflection on peers’ work benefits both writer and reviewer. And it gives students a durable skill that will help them navigate the ever-shifting landscape of education and work.

Sherry Wynn Perdue is director of the writing centre at Oakland University, Michigan.

Pam Bromley is a writing associate at Scripps College, California.

Mark Limbach is CEO at Peerceptiv.

Jonathan Olshock is COO and head of partnerships at Peerceptiv.

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