My classes and I are discussing peer feedback right now as we move into our research blog project, and I recently had them read Richard Straub’s “Responding–Really Responding–to Other Students’ Writing” from the second edition of The Subject is Writing. I’ve read and taught this text before, but for some reason I find that I’m engaging with it a little bit differently this semester.

This post in a nutshell; thanks to Wordle.
This post in a nutshell; thanks to Wordle.

Specifically, I’m thinking about Straub’s advice to students in the context of the kinds of comments that I actually leave on my students’ writing.

If you aren’t familiar with this (very short) chapter on giving feedback to other students, Straub covers some key points for students, including getting started, identifying their roles as readers, what to address, and even the best way to “sound.” Then, Straub looks at an example of one student commenting on another student’s writing, explaining how and why the comment is successful. Although the reading is a little dated (it’s just under 20 years old), I think it’s helpful enough for getting students thinking about the best kinds of comments to leave their peers.

From my experiences as a writing instructor, I’ve noticed that students tend to struggle with making meaningful comments. And, from my recent experiences as I student, I have some ideas about where these less-than-helpful comments during peer feedback sessions come from. In some cases, students may struggle to know how to respond to their peers. They may not feel that they “know enough” to give good feedback. Or, they may also be unsure about an assignment, and that uncertainty can get in the way of their abilities to respond to students.

In other cases (and, from my varied experiences, this is more likely), students are apathetic about the peer feedback process. As a young writer, I rarely engaged with revision, and peer feedback was more like a pat on the back than receiving anything but corrections on a few minor errors. For collegiate level students, I’ve noticed that many of them already have a standing conception of the writing process, and those preconceived ideas can keep them from caring about their own writing, let alone someone else’s.

It saddens me that I see so many students who come into first-year writing classes already identifying as “bad writers.” These ideas come from previous instructor comments, standardized tests, and even the kinds of comments they receive during peer feedback session. Over the last two years, I’ve realized how important it is to talk about my expectations for peer feedback and to model what I expect that to look like and how to meet those expectations.

In a lot of ways, Straub helps me do that. His writing style is approachable and friendly, and he makes his points funny and memorable. But there is (at least) one point that I take issue with, that I want to think more about today.

In his advice on how to write comments, Straub questions “How to sound?” and then answers, immediately: “Not like a teacher” (139). And while he makes some excellent points to clarify (and qualify, in a way) this comment, I wonder how much teacher response has changed over the years and how that might challenge Straub’s ideas that we don’t want our students to sound like us when they provide feedback to each other.

Straub says to

Sound like you normally sound when you’re speaking with a friend or acquaintance. Talk to the writers. You’re not just marking up a text; you’re responding to the writer. You’re a reader, a helper, a colleague. Try to sound like someone who’s a reader, who’s helpful, and who’s collegial. Supportive. And remember: Even when you’re tough and demanding you can still be supportive. (139)

I hope that I am not in the minority of composition instructors who try to respond like a helpful, collegial reader. I let my students know when I am surprised, when I’m learning from them, when I’m excited about something they’ve done. I also let them know when I don’t quite understand what they’re saying, when I need more details, and when I have a concern about something they’ve written or how they’ve written it.

I don’t like that I may be the first teacher students encounter who do this. I know that I am not alone, as I did not just decide to respond this way. We discussed it in my graduate programs and, upon reflection, I realized that my favorite instructors had responded in these same ways. Even when they were harsh or were challenging my ideas, they responded to me as a knowledgeable writer that needed to be pushed in new and sometimes unexpected directions in order to put together my most effective piece of writing.

But even though I had received these comments, I never quite grasped putting them into action myself. As a consultant in the writing center, I didn’t have trouble focusing on content development and aiding students in furthering their ideas, not just the polish of them. But as a peer, this was not something I could do. I’m sure I often gave good feedback, as I had a lot of classmates that wanted to work with me. And I must have gotten good feedback from them because I wanted to work with them, too. But I know that I didn’t always provide the best feedback that I probably was capable of doing as a student.

Because I wished that I had had more instruction in how to respond, I teach it to my students. I know that they won’t all absorb this the first time we do it, and I know that some of them won’t absorb it ever. But I hope that they will see the importance on developing each others’ ideas rather than pointing out a few comma splices and misplaced modifiers.

I’m finding discussing good strategies for peer feedback on a research blog to be much more effective than when I’ve discussed Straub at other points in the semester. I think part of it may be that students don’t have the option to leave marginal comments. They physically cannot mark up the text, so it’s not as easy for them to focus on mechanics. But the real reason this is effective is because students are seeing each other respond and seeing me respond.

And sometimes, my responses are really references to other comments left by students. I find myself often saying things like, “I agree with Jan about your summary” or “I think Keegan makes some excellent points to consider!” I don’t know what, exactly, I expect students to learn from this: perhaps to see that they are giving each other useful feedback, perhaps to understand that they should listen to each other. Perhaps students who are struggling to make comments on other students’ posts will get ideas about how to comment on other students’ posts.

We aren’t far enough into this process to really see how students are understanding the comments and whether they are using the feedback they receive, but I am hopeful about the outcome when we finish up the research blog toward the end of March.

For Further Reading:

Straub, Richard. “Responding–Really Responding–to Other Students’ Writing.” The Subject is Writing. 2nd ed. Ed. Wendy Bishop. Portsmouth: Boynton/Cook, 1999. 136-146. Print.