Sunday, April 27, 2008

Fostering Writing Development through Online Peer Review

Kelly Whitney

Peer review has become a fundamental practice in composition courses over the past few decades. Instructors rely on students to provide feedback for others, with the hopes of improving both the writer and reviewer’s papers. As computers and technology become more prominent in the composition classroom, instructors are able to incorporate technology with fundamental activities such as peer review. Electronic peer review—also commonly referred to as e-peer review, online peer review, and web-based peer review—is simply moving the traditional face-to-face approach to peer review into an online format. For simplicity and consistency, I will refer to all modes of online peer review as OPR. More and more instructors are turning to OPR for several reasons; some teachers find it to be more convenient for the students, some use it to help create a paperless classroom, others prefer to dedicate class time to instruction, and many find the feedback to be of higher quality than in traditional peer review. Regardless of the reason, OPR is quickly replacing traditional face-to-face peer review, and students are profiting from what OPR offers that the traditional approach doesn’t.

A critical facet of peer review, anonymity is more easily achieved through OPR. Studies have shown that anonymous reviewers provide more critical feedback than identifiable reviewers (MacDonald). When kept anonymous, reviewers aren’t concerned with the feelings of the writers and can, in turn, provide more honest comments (Lu and Bol). Furthermore, anonymity is a key component of deindividuation. Deindividuation refers to situations when students stop seeing others as actual individuals—students remove interpersonal relationships with other members of a group. By separating individuals from social groups, they feel that they cannot be singled out by others and that others cannot single them out (Lu and Bol). Deindividuation, or the detachment of individuals from group dynamics, invites more critical and honest feedback, and anonymity is key to achieving it.

Additionally, students performed better in e-peer review when both the reviewer and the reviewed remained anonymous (Robinson). Reviewers claimed they felt uncomfortable reviewing friends or other students they knew, and therefore hesitated to provide critical or negative feedback. By keeping both the reviewer and the reviewed anonymous, students are “relieved from the social pressures and enabled to express themselves freely without considering interpersonal factors” (Lu and Bol 102). Anonymity allows students to review the text and not the person.

Multiple Reviewers
The importance of using multiple reviewers has been acknowledged by several researchers (Robinson; MacDonald; Althauser; Lu and Bol), and OPR is better able to accommodate this approach. Evaluating several texts has been shown to benefit both the reviewer and the reviewed. Reviewers are able to see alternative approaches to writing styles, become exposed to more writing in their genre, and are able to look at their own writing more critically after evaluating multiple pieces. Having several reviewers allows for the reviewed to receive much more critical feedback, which, if taken into account while revising, should improve their writing (MacDonald). While traditional peer review generally uses the multiple-reviewer approach, students are relieved of the hassle of flipping through numerous pages to find the comments with OPR; they find that simply clicking on each file to look at comments is much easier and organized (Althauser).

Implementing multiple reviewers also allows students to write multiple drafts more easily. Organized feedback can come more quickly from several readers in an online setting, giving the writer more time to revise (Althauser). And because revision is the key to improving student writing, it is important that students have ample time to receive feedback and incorporate the feedback into their writing, which OPR is better able to accommodate.

Student Engagement and Training
While study after study confirms that students who engage in OPR outperform those who practice traditional peer review, many students who participate in OPR are often unsure of how to approach it (MacDonald). Studies suggest that untrained students revert back to familiar forms of evaluation: They provide more feedback on lower-order concerns (grammar, spelling) than higher-order concerns (content, coherence) (Robinson). In order to achieve high-quality feedback, instructors must train their students on how to approach e-peer review (MacDonald; Robinson; DiGiovanni and Nagaswami).

Keith Topping offers seventeen parameters for Peer Review Typology to help both students and teachers in the peer review process. By following the typology, instructors will be able to better express their expectations for peer review and identify the rhetorical situation. For students, this typology will help them to understand the rhetorical situation and what is expected of them. These parameters identify the objectives (what students are to gain from peer review), focus (is it to be a summary or critique), and place (in or out of class), among several others (Topping 252). By following these parameters, students should have a better understanding of their expectations for peer review.

Yet even with training and preparation, students will only produce high-quality feedback if they maintain interest in OPR (Lin at al.). Instructors, therefore, need to be aware of students’ feelings towards e-peer review. There is a direct correlation between engagement and performance; they more interested students are in OPR, the better they will perform (Lin et al.). One study credits the novelty of OPR for student engagement; when the novelty wears off, students become disengaged (Xu). There must be open communication between teacher and students to identify concerns or lack of interest with e-peer review. Furthermore, instructors should create a venue in which students can discuss their thoughts and attitudes towards writing assignments with each other. Even though this might jeopardize anonymity, creating this open-discussion forum should foster more positive feelings towards both the assignments and OPR (Lin et al.).

Students’ Positions
When students are interested and adequately prepared for OPR, an overwhelming majority of them prefer this approach to traditional peer review. (Lu and Bol; Lin et al.; Robinson). Students claim they like the freedom of e-peer review; they can complete it on their own time and in the comfort of their own homes (Lin et al.). Furthermore, students find themselves staying focused and on task; they aren’t distracted by the social opportunities that develop in face-to-face peer review. Also, they claim that they have more opportunities to reflect on their thoughts before typing them, creating more focused and critical feedback. OPR also helps students retain information better, and fosters computer literacy (Lu and Bol; DiGiovanni and Nagaswami).

Implications for Further Research

Because OPR is such a new area of study, much more research is needed to identify the benefits of this approach and to support the procedures that previous research has established to be most efficient. While previous studies have provided excellent insight into the benefits of peer review, there is still much room for study. After reviewing the published literature concerning OPR, I have come up with three areas that further research needs to be conducted:
1.OPR pedagogy—Now that we know the benefits of OPR, we need to know how to teach our students to engage in it. Several studies indicate the importance of OPR, yet none offer suggestions on how to train our students.
2.Maintaining student interest—Studies have shown that maintaining interest is vital for the success of OPR, and highlight what happens when students lost that interest (Lin et al., Xu). With traditional face-to-face peer review, it is easier to take new approaches to maintain interest: Students can read aloud, take the assembly lines approach where each student is responsible for reviewing a specific aspect of the text, and the social relationships built with new group members all help to maintain student interest. Because the social context is removed in OPR, we need to create new ways to keep the students interested. More research is needed in this area to identify pedagogical approaches to keep the students interested.
3.OPR etiquette—Because of the interpersonal relationships that are created in traditional peer review, students are rarely disrespectful to the other group members. But if we take the anonymity approach to OPR—the approach that is deemed to be most efficient—deindividuation might make students victims; reviewers might not consider the writer while giving feedback, only the text. This could potentially lead to overly critical or disrespectful comments, ultimately hurting the OPR process. Researchers must investigate the extent of critical comments and offer an outline for OPR etiquette.

For works cited, see annotated bib.

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