Small groups can be used to achieve a variety of results. Some professors use small groups to allow students to hash out a particular issue prior to opening it up to large-group conversation – this works especially well if they have composed a free write in class or a short assignment outside of class. The group time allows students a chance to share ideas and identify areas of agreement, disagreement, and confusion. But small groups can also be formed without prior preparation: simply give each group a question, a piece of text, a data set, or a challenge of any kind, and ask them to tackle it as a group and then report back to the larger group. Some professors use small groups strategically to breathe some life into a lackluster discussion (again, with a question, or perhaps with the task of identifying some key questions). Others use them to get students thinking about a central question or problem prior to a lecture. The key in all cases seems to be (1) giving each group a specific task, such as a question or data set or text to wrestle with, and (2) making it clear that the group will be responsible for a short but direct report back to the group.
Using Small Groups for Peer Review
A specific and highly effective use of small groups is to engage students in reviewing each other’s written work. This can be done at any stage of the writing process: sharing free writes to generate ideas, sharing ideas for essays, sharing thesis statements, sharing introductions or other individual paragraphs, or sharing entire drafts. The tricks to making it work well are few, but they truly do matter.
One key to making peer review work is giving students clear guidelines, typically with a rubric of some kind, to shape and focus the feedback they give one another. We offer some examples below, but ideally, the criteria you use in your class will emerge from your own classroom, from the language you use when discussing writing with your students and when crafting assignments. (You can even develop the criteria with students in a brainstorming session, which creates a shared sense of ownership.) Providing useful, thoughtful feedback to a peer is a learned skill, and as such we shouldn’t be surprised that it sometimes takes a few tries to become adept at it. This is a good reason to include it more than once in a given semester (and for sticking with it if the first attempt yields mixed results). While we hope and expect students to benefit from the feedback they receive, it’s also worth keeping in mind that students learn a great deal in the process of giving feedback: the act of analyzing a piece of writing and articulating a response is a rich learning experience. Peer groups can be set up in different ways, can happen in class or outside of class, and can be anonymous or signed – feel free to consult with us if you are planning to incorporate it into your class for the first time.
When using peer review, we recommend doing the first round in class. In our workshops and lunch discussions, we emphasize (1) the importance of giving students a good set of criteria with which to assess the work of their peers, (2) the importance of debriefing after the first session, so that students can reflect on the process and you can weigh in with suggestions and corrections, and (3) the importance of doing it several times in the semester, so that students get good enough at it to realize how valuable the practice is. Learning to give and receive thoughtful feedback is essential for student writers, and peer review gives them that experience without requiring that faculty provide all of the comments.
Engaging Ideas by John Bean has an entire chapter devoted to small groups.
Wilbert McKeachie et al. cover peer and collaborative learning in chapter 13 of McKeachie’s Teaching Tips.
Our handout “Bringing Writing into the Classroom” includes a brief section on the mechanics of peer review.
Fiona Paton, in “Approaches to Productive Peer Review,” offers a good overview of the practice and logistics of using peer review in class [coming soon].
Some tips about using peer review can be found in this excerpt from Elements of Teaching Writing [coming soon].
Sample Criteria and Instructions for Peer Review:
Brooke Jude has carefully presented what she expects of her students when they undertake peer review in her upper-level biology course. As her peer review guidelines explain, peer reviewers are graded on their “thoughtfulness,” and the entire review process is anonymous.