Peer Review – How To Work With Your Mates

By Angelina Nguyen in Easy Reading
29th of January 2019
peer review

Peer review. Two words that can generate the greatest of shudders from high school students. Two words that instill fear at the utmost capacity and send reverberations of groans across a classroom. However, two words that, I believe, can play a huge role in a student’s success in the HSC.

During my final years of high school, I was employed as a student peer reviewer who gave feedback and helped young writers like myself in their writing endeavours. What initially began as a responsibility in my casual work grew to be an important aspect of my approach to studying and learning, especially when it came to writing. All my subjects in Year 12 had essay and/or creative writing and while I was always grateful for having them marked by my teachers, I found some of the best help coming from other students also sitting in the same boat as me. I reflected recently on what gave me the biggest advantage in the HSC and was able to become aware of the immense benefits of peer reviewing, assisting me in achieving my goals.

Why aren’t students doing this already?

A dread for peer reviewing largely roots from personal insecurities. Students may feel pressured by the standards of their own work and how it measures up to the one they are assigned. This may cause them to begin doubting their own work and whether they are heading in the right direction with their writing. A student may then feel unqualified to provide feedback on a response that they may believe exceeds their own abilities. This will gradually make them less willing to be brave and vulnerable enough share their own work, as well as provide feedback for others.

Furthermore, students can also feel pressured to provide feedback that is the right amount of encouragement and constructive criticism. Whether it be asked as part of a class task to peer review another classmate’s work or to read a sample response and identify its strengths and weaknesses, it is hard to find a balance and to know how to word feedback. Being afraid of coming off as offensive and critical, whilst also aiming to not sugarcoat a response, can overwhelm a student and eventually bring them to detest peer reviewing.

When students encounter peer reviewing tasks in high school, it is often under conditions that are, what they believe at least, against their interests. Why would anyone want to spend time helping someone else when they can use that time working on their own work? Although prioritising self-gain may not be the healthiest mindset, it does raise a reason as to why students would prefer to focus on their own studies over investing in shared studying.

For those who do enjoy peer reviewing, these factors would have no influence on their attitude towards giving feedback. However, I know that peer reviewing is not something that many people like doing, let alone engaging in, because the benefits are not as obvious. As someone who peer reviewed multiple works of writing during their HSC, for work, study and fun, I have a completely different outlook on the importance of giving feedback to your fellow peers.

Yes, You Can Peer Review

Choosing to peer review on your own terms is the first step. Rather than perceiving it as a daunting and anxiety-inducing activity, peer reviewing is ultimately an exercise that anyone is qualified to participate in. You are reviewing the work of someone who is also sitting the same exams as you, writing the same essays as you and embarking on the HSC journey with you. Remembering that you are reviewing the work of someone who is equal to you in the grand scheme of the system will help you develop confidence in your feedback services. You do not need to be achieving certain marks or results to be qualified to help out a peer with their writing. All you need to have is willingness.

With the HSC being a collective learning experience in the end, working together and building on each others’ strengths and areas of improvement can make the difference in a cohort’s performance. Peer reviewing is one aspect of this. A student who is soaring up in the ranks may just receive their most useful advice from someone who is averaging the class. A student who is barely passing may finally be able to if a generous and kind student who specialises in the student’s weaker areas devotes some time to them. Peer reviewing does not discriminate or value ability over potential for collaborative effort, much like any team sport. When it comes to peer reviewing, it is not only about helping others perform their best. It is also about elevating the team you are in to conquer the HSC game.

How To Give Feedback

Skimming through a piece and giving at most two comments on grammar is not what peer reviewing should be about. Giving quality feedback is all about immersion and dedication. Your peer should feel as if you have invested in their work as much as you would your own from reading your feedback. To effectively do this, I would strongly advise reading the piece at least once without any reviewing in mind. Simply absorb the writing for what it is and comprehend the piece. Figure out what your peer is aiming to achieve in their piece and keep that at the forefront of your feedback.

Once you have read through it once, identify the strengths in the piece. What was particularly delightful, interesting or well-written in the piece? This can confirm to your peer that they are on the right track. You can even encourage them to continue pursuing a similar style of writing or to use certain vocabulary in future pieces of writing to show that you think it is working well and that they should keep it up.

When I have to give constructive criticism, I aim to offer feedback in the form of suggestions. Rather than imposing my opinions on their writing by saying “You should/need to fix this…”, I would word my feedback with expressions such as “You could consider/I would suggest/Perhaps you could explore this further.” What you are able to do with this is preserve the peer’s piece as their own and allow them to make the final call without it appearing to be a decision you are forcing on to them.

Framing your constructive criticism into questions is also a clever way to offer your peer an area they may wish to revise or improve on. If there are areas that you believe require further elaboration, ask them if they intended to leave out the details or if they could clarify what they were trying to say. Asking questions enables you to delve further into your constructive criticism and admit that you are unsure of what they are trying to articulate in a way that demonstrates sensitivity towards your peer’s work.

A final tip I have for balance is in regards to tone. A supportive tone can be created in the review if you imagine yourself being the student receiving the feedback. Is the expression encouraging, whilst also offering insights you may wish to consider? What more would you have liked from the feedback? Do you feel compelled to return to the draft and continue writing? These are all crucial considerations to have when constructing your tone in the feedback and ensuring that you yourself would be satisfied with the peer review that you are giving.

What exactly do you get out of it?

Exchanging work to peer review is an incredibly effective study method for success. Peer reviewing is, at the end of the day, two-way in its benefits if you and a peer agree to help one another. Being able to take a break from your own work but still getting work done is an amazing part about exchanging works to peer review. By stepping back from your own writing and reviewing another’s, you continue to be productive  and to learn from another person’s work in the meantime. Perhaps you may discover a few new words to add to your own vocabulary or adopt a different approach to one of your own pieces of writing. As long as you are not plagiarising the work, you are encouraged to be inspired and motivated for your own writing from reading and reviewing someone else’s work.

In conjunction with this, you are receiving feedback yourself from someone who is also on the same playing field as you. They know the game too and may offer you valuable assistance if you take the opportunity to exchange work. I did this with a few of my friends and found myself gaining a great deal from their feedback. The different perspectives and insights they provide may be what changes your writing for the better in the long run. In a peer reviewing exchange, there is mutual gain and you definitely get something out of it.

My last point is on the significance, and power, of quality editing. I understood just how important editing is in the writing process from engaging in peer reviewing consistently. In identifying grammatical errors, weirdly-worded expressions or typos in my peers’ works, I began to recognise my mistakes and became more aware of patterns in my own writing that needed to be revised. Even when my essays or creative writings were absolutely polished, peer reviewing, at the very least, was a reminder that there was always something to work on, sentences to tweak and answers yet to be found.

Feedback from my peers gave me direction to edit my work and even encouraged me to edit my work on my own terms as a part of my study schedule. When it came to submitting my work for teachers to give feedback on, they no longer had to correct my grammar and punctuation; they were able to focus on developing my ideas and improving my expression. An edited piece of writing will certainly speak for you as a student and place you at a favourable position, whether it be with your first draft in need of further guidance or being marked as your final one.

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