Peer Reviews and Phase III

I did two things this week: my students peer reviewed the first formal paper, and we set the stage for and transitioned to Phase III.

The peer review went better than I expected. I was worried that my students would fill the pages with banality, but they did a nice job of offering meaningful, substantive, comments.

Apparently they’re done this before (in EN 101) and I was clear on my expectations. Based on input from Betsy, Richard, and Siggy, I wrote this list on the white board:

  • What’s the thesis? Where did you find it?
  • Mark the most remarkable sentence in the paper. Explain why you chose it.
  • What part of the paper confuses you?
  • What questions do you have for the author?

Before they got started we discussed what they should be looking for, what each meant.

For example, I said the question relating to the thesis followed from years of seeing students talk themselves into an argument as they write. I said I’d often find the the real thesis on page three of a four page paper. If you see something similar, point it out, I said.

I told them this was not a checklist of things they had to find and do. It was a guide. Except for the last bullet: I wanted everyone to ask a question or two of the author.

In my 2:00 seminar I finally figured out that we could swap papers multiple times. Each student probably had three reviews on their paper and under their belt.

The majority thought this was a useful exercise. They liked reading seeing their peer’s arguments, and found their peer’s comments valuable toward revision. This is good because my goal is to have them see writing as an iterative process, that they are far from done when they produce the paper. And that writing isn’t a chore to get through, but an opportunity to generate conversation in our community of practice.

I am toying with the idea of “publishing” the most thoughtful papers to reinforce the idea that we write with a purpose for an audience other than “satisficing” the professor.

I asked for and will look at both copies this week. (FYI, I told them it’s fine to reject a reviewer’s comments, but they should include a note explaining why.)

As you’ll recall, my “prompt” was vague, namely “to share what insights they’ve formed after working for six weeks on the wicked problem, the disciplinary areas, building an inquiry mindset or using the tools of systems thinking (the issue map).

Yes, some struggled. Create an original idea? You must be joking?! Not only an original idea, but deciding how best to represent that idea to their peers.  I want them to struggle. I tell them up front that’s the point.

I will offer comments toward these outcomes with an eye toward making paper two better. I will not grade them. I am not an accountant taking points off here and there. I want them focused on my comments and better writing, not on what it takes to get an A.

Phase III

For the transition to Phase III, I had them start with a memory retrieval exercise. I asked them to spend three minutes writing out their understanding of the FYS ELOs. When they were done I collected their papers and had them swap. In other words, the work they read to the class was not their own. This seemed to empower them a bit!

What I heard was spot on, except they didn’t mention the one about writing and speaking to share insights! (Ironic given Monday’s work…).

Regardless, it allowed me to talk about all six goals again (which was my intent) and to use the ELOs to discuss the next phase: developing personal guiding question.

After a bit of discussion (“what do I mean when I say that you make the QU education greater than the sum of its parts?) I had them get into small groups and develop a set of principles that would characterize a good guiding question.

They were on the ball here as well, offering language that mirrored our text quite closely. More than one student noted how similar the language was to the concept of “wicked problems.” Bingo, I said.

Today they mapped out the plan. I articulated the need for small group work, self-explanation presentations, a formal paper (they added in a peer review day!) and the poster construction, all by November 18th.

They filled in the rest. Each class has a slightly different approach, but each plan will work.

I did add (when they were done) that while working in their small groups they could go to the library together, take advantage of different quite spaces around campus, or use the classroom for their work. It’s up to them. As long as they a) keep me in the loop and b) produce thoughtful, rigorous, complex work I am unconcerned that they be in class at 8, 9, or 11 every MWF.

The small group work goes for about six class periods…I am not letting them run with scissors for the remainder of the semester.

Please remember: student-led is not “whatever they want”. It’s allowing a high degree of collaborative decision making within clear belief and boundary systems.



  1. I believe if you ask some of my students, they would say I allow to them to do “whatever they want” and my PCs will tell you about the various caveats and structures that are discussed before “whatever” becomes a reality. Critical thinking, inquiry, reflection, fact-based opinions are a must as well as talking to and working with each other. I find it interesting how some classes treat peer review with (no pun intended – honest) kid gloves and that does not change through the semester.


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