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Keeping Kids Connected Through Digital Peer Feedback

When exploring John Hattie’s research on classroom practices that impact student learning, there is no question that peer feedback is a valuable activity that incorporates a number of positive strategies.

Source: PLConnect, CEISC

However, if your students are anything like mine, asking them to leave peer feedback on a classmate’s paper instead results in a student flipping to the last page and writing “Great job!” even if it was not, in fact, a great job (because let’s be honest, we write multiple drafts for a reason!). Or, if you tried to incorporate a rubric into peer feedback to get more thoughtful responses, you then simply see a stripe of highlighter on the highest category on the rubric, still partnered with the feedback “Great job!” even if it was not, in fact, a great job.

So, the question I always asked myself was how does a teacher get students to leave meaningful feedback on a peer’s paper? (Furthermore, how can we accomplish this practice via distance learning, if necessary in the future?) Fortunately, as an instructional coach last year, I worked with an English teacher at Ceres High School to answer this very question and yielded results beyond anything I had seen before with peer review!

The first key to our success was making the peer feedback double blind. Students said they were extremely uncomfortable with the peer review process on both ends when their names were on the paper. Students giving feedback tended to score their classmates higher than they actually believed they earned, because they didn’t want to hurt their friend’s feelings. Additionally, students receiving feedback tended to view the feedback more harshly when they knew from whom it came.

In order to eliminate both factors, we made the peer feedback process digital and completely anonymous (except to us, the teachers, for accountability purposes!)

To achieve this, we asked students to use their ID number, instead of their name when printing their paper (or a special code or pseudonym, since now students say you can simply type in a peer’s ID number into Google email to see to whom it belongs, but I digress…) Note: If doing this digitally, the teacher can make a copy of the paper and remove the name, or replace it with a code or pseudonym before sharing it for feedback, instead.

Then, we randomly assigned the papers to the class for feedback (it always helps to have a few extra copies of essays on hand, since inevitably there will be a few who forgot to print, or do not have a draft). We thought it was extremely important for all students to participate in the feedback process, even if they did not have a paper of their own on which to receive feedback. The very act of leaving feedback on another’s paper, we knew, would in turn strengthen their own draft!

The form that students were asked to complete for each paper they read included a spot for their name as reader, as well as their peer’s code/ID number/pseudonym (see image below). (When the form spreadsheet was shared with students, we made a copy and removed the column with the reader’s names, leaving only the author’s information behind. We wanted to hold students accountable for the activity, while keeping it anonymous to the students). Then, the form asked students to rate their peer’s paper numerically, using the same scoring criteria as the rubric.

Following each score, students were asked to justify their ranking for each category (see image below). This is where the magic happened! When justifying the score, using evidence from the text, a student could no longer get away with “striping” or simply writing “Great job!” anymore. As students left feedback, I was blown away, seeing their feedback in real time. (I could also leave feedback on their feedback, if I wanted!)

As you can see in the form results (see image below), students wrote extremely thoughtful responses, such as:This was a general understanding of the prompt but could be expanded on a bit more. For example add more depth as to why you look up to this person and how deeply that person impacted your life.” as well as: This student gives only two reasons why they think they're a good candidate, but they repeated it throughout their first two paragraphs. I think they should add more to their list of why they think they're a good candidate.” and The length of the sentences are about the same length. They need to add some commas and extend the sentences. They also misspelled a couple words and didn't capitalize things that needed to be capitalized.”

At the end of the form (see image below), students had to state what the author did well, as well as where they could focus their revisions. On the latter question, we received responses such as: “The author can still work to improve their sentence placement and structure. For example the sentences were too short and not enough description to make the reader feel emotionally intrigued.” and “This author can add more to their statement, like their academic achievements that make them stand out, or even extracurricular activities if they do any.” and “The only thing I can say is maybe give an specific example of how adaptability has helped him in sports or school and also explain a little bit more, sometimes I felt like he was going too fast.”

Definitely an incredible upgrade from what either of us had seen before in peer feedback assignments!

Once all students had left feedback on 2-3 classmate’s papers, I formatted the spreadsheet of responses and shared it with students, via Google Classroom. When formatting, I removed the column that held the student's name (but not the author codes!), then conditionally formatted the numerical responses. Assigning a color to each numerical response made it easier for me to see at a glance where students were overall with this assignment. Finally, I sorted the author code column A-Z so all responses for a particular student’s paper would be sequential. We considered printing the feedback rows for each student, rather than sharing it, but we realized that allowing students to see all responses would help struggling students even more by allowing them to read the feedback of why the high scoring papers received the scores they did!

The form and the process can be customized endlessly to fit teacher and student needs, but the biggest takeaways from this assignment for us were 1) Make sure the feedback was double-blind, and 2) Ask students to justify why they were giving the scores they did for each column.

Though it will require a touch more work on the teacher’s end to prepare documents to complete this assignment during distance learning, the outcome of creating peer interaction, as well as strengthening not only feedback, but student writing, will make the activity worthwhile!

Stay Techie,

Madeline Guerini

English Teacher

Ceres High School

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