I’m currently teaching a semester-long research class that serves as the capstone course for our graduate program in Assessment, Curriculum, and Teaching. In the course, the graduate students (who are all practicing teachers) create an action research project to study the impact of an instructional intervention they learned in the program. After collecting data and analyzing the findings, the graduate students write a large formal, professional paper that encompasses all of their work this semester. While the final paper isn’t as arduous or comprehensive as a traditional graduate thesis, the work can be pretty stressful and time-consuming. I try my best to scaffold the class so it builds in complexity and has enough supports along the way, so students don’t feel completely overwhelmed.
The semester is winding down and the students are getting ready to complete their first drafts of their final paper. Typically, I assign peer reviewers to offer first feedback on initial drafts of assignments. I’ve actually done this several times with the students in this class this semester. A few months ago, the students developed a formal “action research plan” which they shared with a classmate for feedback. My goal is that students could help each other catch the “low hanging fruit” of spelling and grammatical errors and can iron out some of the initial issues together. I always provide additional feedback, but I tend to focus on the structure and depth of their writing as well as their overall narratives.
In addition to the peer review process, I actually tried something different this semester. Our institution subscribes to a service called Smarthinking which offers online tutoring for student writing. Students can submit papers to the service, and they’ll receive feedback from a tutor on ways to improve their writing. I offered this option to these graduate students earlier in the semester and the reviews were mostly positive. Some wished they had received the feedback more promptly, and others thought the feedback didn’t align perfectly with the assignment they were completing. Overall, however, the students were generally positive.
Currently, I’m putting together the final modules to support these students as they complete their first drafts of their final papers. Since this is the first class that conducted peer reviews and used the online tutoring service, I wondered which I should include in their drafting and revision process. In addition to the feedback I plan to provide, should I assign peer reviewers? Or should I offer the online tutoring service? Rather than make the decision in isolation, I decided to ask my students.
I sent out a quick survey asking students about their impressions with the peer review process and with the online tutoring service. I also asked them directly, “What do you feel is the best way to support your revisions of your final paper?”
The results were kind of surprisingly. 58% of the students who responded to the survey preferred to use the online tutoring service. 25% of the students wanted to use a peer review process. One student wanted me to allow students to choose either based on their own needs and another student wanted to use BOTH service in conjunction with one another. While these findings were eye opening, I also found the rationale they offered to be educational. While some students wrote about the benefits and (challenges) of the tutoring service, more wrote about their own reservations about being a good peer reviewer. One student wrote, “I feel self-conscious providing feedback to someone when I am not 100% sure that it’s the right move.” Another called the peer review process “intimidating.” One student was really mindful of the fact that their classmates may not be well-positioned to offer good feedback. They wrote, “My peer reviewer meant well and tried their best, but some people do not have writing editing and revising in their wheelhouse. Asking some people to give feedback on writing may not be fair to them. And may have stretched them (maybe even stressed them) more than was comfortable.”
After reading my students’ thoughtful feedback, I’m going to use the online tutoring service for the revision process. Sure, it may not be perfect, but it can help students revise their work in a way that may be better attuned to their needs and strengths.