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Minnesota State University, Mankato
Minnesota State University, Mankato

Using Peer Groups

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Using Peer Writing Conference Groups

Many faculty use peer response groups as a means to provide feedback to student writers as they prepare to revise their work. Because these groups involve students reading each other's writing and receiving feedback on their own writing, the groups can be especially useful in helping to improve students' abilities:

  • To read and analyze writing
  • To analyze and address the needs of an audience
  • To accurately assess their own writing

Students may find this difficult, but they get better at it as they go along. Someone in the group gives good comments and everybody sees immediately what is useful; then their comments improve. This critical reading of a draft is an important skill students can transfer to their own writing as they learn to read this way and as they see how their own evaluation of their writing stacks up against their peers' readings of it. They will learn what they are good at picking out and what they need to be on the lookout for in their own drafts. Students also need to think about how to make the conferences work for themselves—that is, how to ask for feedback they want and need.

Peer conference groups can eventually be very successful in helping students become better writers and evaluators of their own writing, but teachers need to set up and support these groups. There is no single best way to do groups, so experiment and see what works best for you and your students. There are really two things to teach when you are using conference groups. One has to do with teaching your subject and with writing about it. The other involves teaching students how to conference and how to comment on writing effectively. Using peer groups effectively takes consistent attention. For example, after a group session, it's a good thing to discuss in class how it went—and what people did to make it (either the commenting itself or the group meeting) work better. Here are some things to consider, all of which are discussed in more detail later.

Suggestions for Successful Writing Conference Groups

  1. Continually support the development of conferencing skills:
    • Describe different kinds of possible commentary
    • Establish clear roles and expectations for readers and writers
    • Hold mock conferences before each peer conference session and establish possible focuses for commentary
    • Solicit feedback in writing or though discuss about difficulty students have in commenting or in conferencing
    • Give feedback on written commentary that students make on the peers' drafts
  2. Give appropriate credit for student conferencing work in the course grade

Initial Planning and Decisions

Deciding how to arrange groups

  • In class, out of class, or online?
    Many teachers prefer in class groups to ensure that students can meet together face to face without scheduling conflicts and to help, especially at the beginning, if students flounder in their critiques. Online groups can take place in constructed chatrooms or take the form of serial commenting on the same draft.
  • Permanent or temporary?
    Permanent groups throughout the semester tend to build trust and begin to form ideas about each other's writing styles and challenges. Groups can be encouraged to analyze their own group processes and develop improved conferencing skills or handle problems as they arise. New groups offer fresh perspectives and avoid continued problems.
  • Teacher constructed or student choice?
    You can engineer a mix of group members or can group members because of their similarities (in writing skills, for example), whichever seems most pedagogically advantageous. Teachers can also have students count off to make random groups.
  • How big?
    Some teachers work with pairs, but if larger groups are used, four seems to be an ideal number. It's large enough to get a diversity of opinions and function well if one member is absent, but not so large that members' comments get lost.

Deciding on the general routine

  • Will students exchange drafts and read them ahead of time OR read them aloud in class?
    Although it is more complicated, having students bring copies of drafts to class a day ahead of conferences or exchange them electronically by a certain time does allow students time to read carefully and consider the arguments of their peers.
  • Will students comment in writing or orally or both?
    If you are having students meet in groups, they will certainly discuss the drafts orally. To ensure a solid reading of the drafts, it's a good idea to have students write or attach comments as well. Written comments also provide a record of the comments and allow writers to consider the various comments of their peers as they revise. Having students discuss the drafts after making written comments also allows for the interplay of various views and allows writers to ask questions of readers.

Deciding how much credit to allow for participation

If students are to take their commenting work seriously, giving credit for it is good motivation. It takes a while to read thoughtfully and offer suggestions for revision (as you know). I collect comments (see below) and give points for the comments in the Participation part of their grade. I don't study them at length, but encourage specific kinds of commentary and remark on the usefulness of the kinds of commentary that is given. In general, give credit where credit is due and performance is wanted.

Starting Groups in Class

Discussing kinds of written feedback

  1. Discussion of kinds of written feedback (Before first mock conference)
    • Criterion-based and reader-based (see Peter Elbow, Writing with Power 237+)
      Your class may decide on a list of criteria to look for in this kind of paper. Readers should also makes notes of their thoughts as they read (where they are confused, where they are convinced, where they need more specifics etc.)
    • Believing and Doubting (see Peter Elbow, Writing without Teachers, 147+)
      Readers may want to switch perspectives. As a doubting reader, the reader plays devil's advocate or the other side of the argument, concentrating on raising possible objections, asking questions (especially questions like, How do you know?). The believing read coaches the writer, pointing out the best parts (where to maximize effects) and
    • Margin and end comments
      Writing questions or suggestions in the margins near the part of the essay where they occur will help the writer see where to make changes if s/he desires. End comments are useful for making comments on the whole essay (for ex., its tone, its overall organization and so on); these comments can be descriptions of how the essay is coming across.
  2. Discussion of roles and oral feedback (on day of first conference)
    • Writer's role (Listen, take notes, ask questions to understand feedback; NOT to argue, explain etc.)
    • Reader's role (Balance compliments and suggestions, be specific, point to text)

One Routine for Writing Group Conferences

Preparing for conferences (each time, on the day drafts are due)

  1. Mock Conferences (to practice commenting)
    • The peer conference groups meet in class
      • to discuss a sample paper (of the type they will later be reading from their peers)
      • to list features to concentrate on as they read their peers' papers
    • Peer groups report back to class about what they saw in the paper they reviewed
    • Class compiles a list of features to look for in the papers they read
  2. Self Assessments (written by student as memo to you and to prepare students to ask questions about their own papers in their upcoming peer conferences)
    • What is the purpose/thesis/point of your essay?
    • What is the strongest part or aspect? Be specific.
    • What is the part that needs the most work? Be specific.
    • What kind of feedback would be most helpful from your readers?
  3. Exchange drafts with other groups members and the teacher

Conferences (hold small group conferences for 40 minutes during next class)

  • Have the group appoint a time keeper.
  • After discussing a writer's paper, all group members should sign their names to the drafts they commented upon and return the drafts to the writer (for use during revision).

Post-conference follow up assessment (written by student right after conference)

  • Summarize the feedback you received.
  • What was the most surprising/interesting/useful? Or least useful?
  • List two of your revising priorities and how you will accomplish them. Be specific.
  • Thinking back on the conference, what things did your group do well? What could your group do differently to make these sessions even more useful?

Post-revision assessment

  • Written in class when final drafts are due and handed in with 1) their rough draft; 2) their final draft; 3) the two assessment sheets (self and post-conference) above; and 4) their peers' drafts that they commented on (in this class, writers return their own drafts to the person in their group who commented upon them.)
  • Questions
    1. What was the main focus of your revision work for this draft?
    2. Are you satisfied with this draft? If you had more time, what would you try next?
    3. What have you learned about writing or reading during your work on this unit?

Another Routine: Specialized Roles in Group Conferences

Here's something to post for students when we are going to do peer evaluation of a long paper using sources. Since it's very hard even for faculty to read longer, complex papers for multiple features, one approach is to divide the work and have students take on roles. In each case, students should concentrate on their own responsibilities, but also write about anything they notice even if it's not in their bailiwick.

Role descriptions

  1. Citation Readers
    Main Responsibility:
    Check use of sources, in-text citations, and Works Cited for proper MLA (or whatever system you are using) form.
    Further responsibilities: Note how quotations are introduced. Does the writer show, either in the introduction or after the quotation or paraphrase, how the support relates to the argument, supports the point, etc.? If the quote is hard to understand, does the writer rephrase to show what it means or how it relates to the argument. Does it seem that paraphrases are in the writer's own words, and is further citations or even more support needed anywhere? Where would more support be helpful? Are in-text citations and the Works Cited in proper MLA form?
  2. Organization Readers
    Main responsibility:
    Divide the paper into sections. Describe the logic of organization.
    Further responsibilities: Check the intro to see if it sets up the organization of the paper; check the conclusion.
    Look at transitions—are there enough? do they make the relationships between various parts of the paper clear? Are paragraphs unified or on more than one topic?
  3. Content Readers
    Main responsibility:
    Follow the argument. Is the thesis clearly stated? What is it? Is there sufficient support for the thesis and for the subpoints? What are the subpoints? Is there a counterargument? What is it? Is it effectively handled? Does the writer seem to have a realistic opponent in mind as an audience and address those concerns? Do the intro and conclusion work effectively?

A routine for conferences

  • On the day that students get the rough drafts and you are having mock conferences, have each student in each group choose one of the roles. Then have all the students with the same role from all the groups get together and work on a paper; this way they practice with others how to read for their responsibility.
  • The next day, when the students come to class ready for group conferences, again have the editors with the same role meet briefly to see what they noticed in general and whether they have questions to ask each other. This way they get some advice that they might pass on when they get in their own small groups and are the only ones fulfilling that role.

Further Resources on Peer Conference Groups

From the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a set of pages for establishing independent student writing groups (assumes a faculty mentor). Especially useful are the sheets on How to Respond to Other People's Writing and Guidelines for Faculty Mentors.

From the WAC Clearinghouse at Colorado State, a set of pages supporting teachers who want to use peer conferences.

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