As a practitioner of learner-centered instruction, I am always looking for new ways to engage students in the learning process. Keeping true to the old adage “whoever is doing the teaching is doing the learning,” my instructional style often engages students in dialog, conversation, and presentation.
This year I had my first opportunity to work with students in my institution’s education department. The course I taught was the first in a series of curriculum and instruction courses. Because of the pandemic, it had not been offered in several terms, so I not only had a fairly large class but also had students at different stages in their coursework. Many students in the class were new to the program, some were midway, and several were close to graduation.
The pinnacle project for the course was a curriculum-related paper due at the end of the term. The syllabus reserved a class prior to the due date for a peer-review activity. Students were instructed to complete a working draft of their paper and to bring a paper copy to class to engage in the peer-review process. Expectations for the process included providing feedback as a “critical friend”—a trusted person who asks provocative questions to understand the context and intent of a peer’s work and then provides feedback to advocate for the work’s success (Costa & Kallick, 1993).
Although used here for a paper, the critical friend process can also work for other types of assignments. In describing how I approached the process, I hope to model a way of using it in other courses.
To begin the peer review activity, I redistributed the curriculum paper rubric (which they’d had access to since the beginning of the term) along with a handout that outlined expectations for the peer-review process. It included the following steps:
The handout also included examples of sentence starters that students could use to frame their feedback in friendly terms. Assuming the role of a critical friend meant that the peer review should include not only recommendations for improvement but positive comments on what the writer has done well. The last instructional element before the peer-review activity began was to highlight specific content characteristics that define scholarly writing and that appeared in the rubric, such as clear, concise, and logically ordered prose; appropriate historical context and theoretical framing; arguments supported by evidence; objective analysis; synthesized ideas; and properly cited sources.
To begin the activity, students chose brightly colored, unduplicated pens so that each student had a unique color. The next step was for students to read and review their own papers against the rubric and make notes as directed. Once they had done so, they were instructed to exchange papers with a classmate and repeat the review process. Because they could see the author’s self-commentary, reviewers could use what the author said about their work to frame their comments. Once students completed the first review of a peer’s paper, they were instructed to sit together in pairs (reviewer and writer) and verbally process written comments to provide opportunity for dialog and clarification. This step was meant to encourage readers and writers to think about the process as well as allow authors to speak to problems they were trying to solve and that reviewers might be able to help with. After completing this dialog, each student exchanged papers with a different classmate and repeated the process a second time.
After completing two one-on-one discussions between writers and reviewers, students received their papers with reviews in three different colors (including their own comments). This design allowed them to easily differentiate the reviews.
The final step in the activity was for students to submit a comprehensive reflection in which they examined their experiences both as reviewers and with the feedback they received as writers. This step was critical because it not only gave students the opportunity to self-reflect but also enabled me to gather feedback to improve future iterations of the activity.
The reflections revealed the following about the critical friend activity:
In the future, I will modify the activity to have writers identify key elements in their papers for reviewers to focus on before the peer review begins. Based on the last point above, I will also set aside additional time to discuss style, formatting, and citation issues. Including more practice activities that require critical thinking and synthesizing information—for example, discussing the importance of the content aligning with the rubric or combining information from multiple resources to make a point or argument—will help students prepare for writing and the peer review.
Overall, the benefits of this activity are numerous. Partaking in peer review as a critical friend provides opportunities for students to develop their skills at giving and receiving feedback, engage in metacognition and self-reflection, and ultimately improve the quality of their completed assignments.
Costa, A. L. & Kallick, B. (1993). Through the lens of a critical friend. Educational Leadership, 51(2), 49–51. https://www.ascd.org/el/articles/through-the-lens-of-a-critical-friend
Courtlann Thomas, PhD, is the director of learning resources at Polk State College, where she oversees library services, tutoring, testing, and strategic planning for the department. She also serves as an adjunct in the Education Department at Florida Southern College.