Peer response activities: Overcoming perceived barriers

Daniel Emery

Peer response activities are a long-established and well-proven means to improve student writing. In a recent meta-analysis of studies of peer response, Huisman, Saab, van den Broek, and van Driel (2019) demonstrated that across 24 recent studies of the effectiveness of peer response, peer response activities resulted in strong improvements in writing and greater improvements than other strategies like self-assessment. Nevertheless, peer response activities are still the exception rather than the norm.

When asked what stands in the way of incorporating peer response activities, instructors identify three potential barriers to implementation. This tip addresses those three perceived barriers and offers strategies for overcoming these apparent obstacles.

Students Writing

Barrier One: Peer response activities are logistically complex and take valuable class time.

Solution: Use technology to facilitate simple, outside-of-class peer response.

Within Canvas, any writing assignment can include a peer review component. Instructors can manually assign review teams or allow Canvas to assign reviewers randomly. Canvas will also anonymize reviewers automatically. Outside of Canvas, the Google Suite will allow students to share documents and make suggestions using review and response tools. Some units on campus are working with an independent peer response platform,, to facilitate peer response activities and to develop disciplinary writing skills.

Barrier Two: Students don’t provide adequate feedback (too little) or appropriate feedback (inaccurate/unhelpful).

Solution: Guidance and practice yield effective results.

In the absence of detailed instructions, peers may default to a generic assessment of their peer’s writing and omit descriptive details. The best peer response activities will include:

Explicit description of the task, purpose, and audience for the assignment

Open-ended questions about how and why the document succeeds

  • What evidence in the document do you find most persuasive?
  • How does the writer provide applications for their conclusions?
  • Note: Students can generate their own questions in common by answering "What would you like to know about your work in progress?"

Explicit activities for coaching and revision

Although peers can be trained to approximate the comments of expert reviewers, it is often more beneficial to ask students to describe the textual features they observe in their peers’ writing rather than to engage in peer evaluation. Modeling this descriptive language with a sample document can help students to recognize important features.

In addition, multiple feedback opportunities tend to produce compound effects. The analysis from Huisman et al. illustrated that more peer interaction (responding to multiple peers and receiving feedback from multiple peers) produced greater improvements than interactions between pairs of students.

Barrier Three: Unequal effort exploits strong students and props up weaker ones.

Solution: It’s better to give, and it can be valuable to match.

Some instructors are reluctant to offer peer response activities over concerns about unequal effort. If a highly motivated student matches with a less motivated student, the low-motivation student might reap the rewards of a careful reader while offering little assistance to their high-effort peer.

It turns out that most of the benefits of peer response accrue not from receiving feedback from a peer, but rather through the act of reviewing itself. Research has consistently shown that reviewing peers’ work helps students enter into a more thoughtful and reflective relationship with their own writing. Student writers often report that they engage in revision after a response activity, even in the absence of reviewer comments.

If students are at different stages of their writing on a larger document, asking students to self-report their research progress (just beginning, well underway, nearly completed) can facilitate matching peers with those facing the same questions and issues. Students with more complete drafts can be matched with peers at a similar stage of writing.

Further Support

Interested in designing peer response activities for your class?

Our TWW website has valuable resources on designing peer response activities. Similarly, you can book a consultation with one of our staff to develop activities for your course.

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Good tip, Dan--thanks for organizing it around the reasons some of us hesitate to employ this practice. Thanks also for providing some links to these peer response studies.

Dan --

I appreciate this post, especially the things we can make *explicit* to illicit the quality and depth of responses we are seeking.

I tried Canvas peer review for the first time this semester. The thing that I liked about Canvas was that it could automatically randomize reviewers and it kept all the content in one place.

However, I encountered issues:

--Students have to submit something to be assigned a review. If they submit late, it's hard to re-randomize the reviewers because some have already started.

--When first draft, peer review and final draft are all in the same dropbox (and the original submission and peer review would be), it’s hard because the due dates cannot be dynamic and so you lose track on if someone did anything late.

--Sometimes students would fill out a rubric for another student and it wouldn't show up for them (I replicated this issue myself). It also seemed that a reviewer couldn't just post a comment, but that they *had* to fill out the rubric for their comment to be seen.

--"Anonymous" is a misnomer as many students put their names in their papers.

I've never taken to the comments section to vent before, but you've given me a platform!

Are their smoother peer review technologies you've seen?

Hi Laura
Comments here are somewhat rare, so please pardon me for my delay in response. I'll respond to your questions and comments in order.

1. Late submissions are always a problem. You can manipulate the system a little by waiting to assign reviews until the morning of the day after submission. This will catch some stragglers. However, much like face-to-face peer response, showing up without a draft means one cannot participate in the process. Depending on the reason for the delay, I would support a little flexibility and an off-line solution to matching late submissions.

2. Depending on your strategy of grading, it can be confusing to have multiple submissions all in the same dropbox. You might advise students to add REVISED as a tag to their completed and revised documents. I don't have another cheat to solve this off the top of my head.

3. There are several reasons why a comment might not show up, and some of the known issues come from students working on a range of devices, word processing programs, and operating systems. The folks in Academic Technology Support Services can help, The Canvas user community is also a good source for troubleshooting.

4. Yes. Anonymity depends on keeping the document free from markers associated with a particular student. The "system data" can be anonymized to students, but never truly. I'd argue that this is potentially a good thing, as a small number of people will use the opportunity of anonymity to be rude, inappropriate, or terrible. I might make a point with students that their comments are connected to them indelibly, so they should observe the golden rule.

I've seen folks use GoogleDrive to empower a paper trading system outside of Canvas. It has plusses and minuses. ELI Review is very slick but adds an expense for students or programs. Because ELI is a small business started by writing teachers, pricing can be flexible. ELI is making its service available for free during the massive online transition happening on campuses as a result of COVID 19.

Let's schedule an appointment and talk more!

I use recently used class time for face-to-face peer review using zoom breakout rooms; I organized the groups and they screen shared their drafts (or the areas where they want feedback). I asked that they structure feedback using a framework from Peter Elbow (Sayback, Pointing, Summarizing, What's almost said or implied, Center of gravity, Structure, Metaphorical descriptions); with a smattering of Warren Berger (asking Why 5 times, asking What's at Stake?)) and everyone's favorite (What do you mean by …?). All and all, it went well and students felt it was productive.