Where Beyond Letter Grades Meets a SEACCR

Photo: Peter Elbow Speaking at Baruch College

Peter Elbow Speaking at Baruch College – cc licensed ( BY NC ) flickr photo by BLSCI

Participating in a few MOOCs, as usual, this fall has proven a fascinating learning experience, but has also prompted an unexpected convergence.

I started work with an awesome group of Alaskan educators in Professor Lee Graham‘s’s SEACCR MOOC a couple of months ago. As part of this effort, I began an action research project, still underway in fact. I hadn’t completely reconciled the abbreviated length of the course before diving into the mix. Of course, this hasn’t been a real problem. It is a MOOC after all, meaning I can participate at whatever level I like.

My research question involved peer response groups. Unfortunately, I have not had enough opportunities to collect data from students just yet, because while I use peer response groups, they are not daily activity. Instead I tend to make use of them for longer, more formal writing tasks. I just haven’t had the volume of tasks that would afford completing the data collection phase. Thus, my research will end up taking longer than originally had considered.

Still, when surveying which badges I still had to complete for the Beyond Letter Grades MOOC, I found peer assessment another timely available badge. So while I continue to collect data for my SEACCR action research question (How does the use of use of Google Docs impact peer response groups and change or shape the writing process?), I have definitely been making use of peer assessment in my classes for a number of years.

Peer Feedback & Workshopping Student Writing

Most often, I employ a simple protocol that I have been using with students to get them engaging in peer feedback. It is a method that I picked up during my Invitational Summer Institute experience with the Boston Writing Project. While there are a  number of sources for peer feedback practices, I believe the roots of this particular method trace back to Peter Elbow, in particular Writing Without Teachers, although I am fairly certain it has been simplified and modified over time.

Here is the application of the protocol I have developed for my high school English students.

Peer Response Group Guidelines

Timekeeping:

Each group should have a timekeeper to ensure that every group member has an equal amount of time devoted to the response to their writing.

Reading:

Each group member should have a copy of your writing. Read your piece aloud to the group. Remain silent until someone responds. Resist the impulse to defend, apologize, explain, clarify, or amplify immediately after reading. However, once the first group member has responded, the writer should become part of the dialogue about the piece, and may even wish to direct comments to certain areas or questions.

Usually there is silence immediately after the reader finishes. Sometimes it is long, sometimes it is short. This is normal. Group members need time to look back over the piece, make notes, put their thoughts in order, and find the right words to begin talking about the piece.

Responding:

Responders should begin by commenting on what they feel was the strongest or most positive aspect of the piece. Be positive and specific. This may include comments on particularly striking or effective words, image, constructions, etcetera, or on wider aspects, such as organization, tone, humor. Pick an aspect of the piece that was effective for you as a listener or reader, and describe its effect. What did you hear and see in the piece? How did it make you feel?

After the group has commented on the most positive aspect of the piece, responders should move to the second step, which is to point out or ask about any part that you found confusing for any reason. Is there something the writer assumed you knew that you did not know? Are there areas which are awkward, repetitious, out of place, or unclear?

Next the group should move to giving the writer suggestions on where the piece might go next, possibly around questions such as: Is it in nearly final form? Should it be continued? If so what would you like to hear more about? Are there really two or three subjects vying for attention, and should the piece be split into two or three separate pieces? What direction should rewriting take? How should the writer go about expanding the piece? How does the writer feel about the piece? Is there some specific part of the writing that the writer would like feedback or a specific answer to a question?

Finally, the group members may point out any grammatical, usage, or spelling corrections that should be made. This step should always be last, if used at all. The writer may also want to ask the group for help in some specific area of grammar or usage that proved difficult in the paper.

Protocol:

1. Find the Good, Most Successful – Identify and Celebrate
2. Identify Questions – Factual or Interpretive
3. Make Suggestions – Contribute to Someone’s Learning
4. (Not Required) Highlight Obvious Errors – Grammar, Usage, and Spelling

In Face-to-Face Learning Contexts

I use these guidelines as an introductory framework for peer feedback in nearly every writing course I teach. With ninth grade English students, it typically requires a bit more coaching and practice but they can do it and do it well.

As an introduction to the concept, in my face-to-face courses, I will model the process with them as a whole class, sharing a piece I have written, often one that provides an example of their current assignment. I will then facilitate the guidelines with the whole class, highlighting the most helpful feedback provided by students. Once students are in groups and engaged in the process, I drop in and and out of each group to coach them in using the protocol as needed. It usually take a few separate reps before the better results can be seen. Using peer feedback groups is an evolutionary process for them.

In Online Learning Contexts

Similarly, I have used this method extensively in a completely online screenwriting course that heavily uses of threaded discussion forums. A common practice in online courses is the asking students to craft an original post and respond to at least two other classmates. Again, I model the process with online students most explicitly responding to each student individually in the early days of the course.

Gradually, I withdraw from such volume of responding, as the the peer to peer responses flourish in the discussion threads. Again this is an evolutionary process. It typically takes between four to six weeks for a whole class of students to grow into the ability to provide consistently substantive feedback to one another.

Closing Thoughts

While I might modify this process with more explicit directions or questions inspired by a particular writing task, I always begin with the process and guidelines above. It has become a staple practice in my classroom practice for a number of years now. I have been adapting it for a variety of learning contexts, and most recently investigating the impact of digital applications, but more of that is to come.

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