Peer Editing Benefits You and Your Students
The Law Teacher, Volume 4, number 1 (Fall 1996), p. 11.
About the Author
Kathleen Magone teaches at the University of Montana School of Law. For copies of the peer editing checklists, contact her at University of Montana School of Law, Missoula, MT 59812; (406) 243-5285; fax (406) 243-2576; magone [at] selway.umt.edu.
Peer editing can improve your life and increase your students' learning. You know that students learn more when they personally apply principles, rather than just take notes on them. But you're a busy person. Do you want to take the time to read a set of assignments, knowing that commenting on them will take you many hours? Or should you just rely on your final exam? Or maybe you already have the students do an assignment, but you're disappointed with the work they turn in.
The common writing project without peer editing goes something like this: You outline the relevant law, explain the assignment, perhaps give students a model, and set a deadline. Each student prepares a document. You evaluate the final product. It takes a lot of time, and many of the papers are only mediocre or embarrassingly poor.
When you add peer editing to the process, you and the students both will benefit. The process is simple: Students give each other structured, detailed feedback before an assignment reaches you for evaluation.
One benefit for the teacher is obvious: The paper you evaluate is nearly always much improved, so it takes you less time to read it, and you can write more positive comments. And you make progress toward your goal of encouraging your students to learn.
The students benefit, too. They learn how to give and receive constructive criticism. (I discuss this specifically in class, giving examples of comments attorneys may use in practice.) They also benefit from hearing other students' viewpoints and questions on issues they might not have considered or thoroughly understood.
Students improve their organizational skills with feedback, and they begin to recognize the importance of process: outlining, drafting, and redrafting, rather than cranking everything out at once.
Comments from students about peer editing are almost uniformly very positive, assuming you take the time to structure it well and prepare students for the process. Their work product is indeed improved, and their understanding of the legal issues greater.
Fine. You think this sounds like an okay idea. But how do you get your students to succeed at peer editing?
Students' initial complaints are the same every year: How can I edit something when I don't know anything about it? Why don't you read the first draft and the final draft? Can't I just do it myself? (Implication: I don't trust anyone else and don't want anyone else to have the benefit of my work.)
My answers are consistent each year: I will give you the tools with which to edit. I don't read both drafts because I don't have time to evaluate the assignment twice; instead, I will be available to answer your questions as you peer edit. Everyone must participate; I don't want to see any new concepts in the final product that you haven't discussed when peer editing (in other words, no holding out). My goal is to have everyone learn to do this particular thing well, and if everyone succeeds, I am happy to give everyone good grades.
For peer editing to succeed you must put in some advance effort. Presenting it as a part of your course by listing it in your syllabus gives the students notice of its value. I list the specific dates on which peer editing will occur in class, and include a statement of exactly what the students must bring to class for editing.
The particulars of the process you decide to use are variable, but should include at least the following details:
- The size of the student groups. I have tried pairs, triads, and groups of four and five; my best experience is with triads.
- Whether you will assign the students to groups or let them self-select. Allowing students to arrange their own groups may result in disparity in abilities among the groups, but provides potentially greater comfort. I prefer to group students to include a mix of men and women, a variety of ages, a range of abilities, and a blend of other characteristics, but am aware of the potential concerns of isolating any person by making him or her the "token X" in the group.
- Whether students will work within the same group the entire semester or change for each assignment.
- The tools you give your students, whether written or oral.
- The format of the peer editing process. One option is to have everyone trade papers, so that A reads B's, while B reads C's, and C reads A's; A then discusses with B what she thought of B's paper. This seems to be less efficient, as A won't hear B's comments about C's paper and learn from them. A better alternative is to have everyone read A's paper and talk about it together, then move on to B's and C's papers.
Students' first inclination in peer editing is to look only for grammar and spelling errors, rather than confronting larger issues of organization, development, and substance. To prepare students to be effective peer editors, I provide a formal checklist for each assignment and go over it in detail. I explain that this checklist is closely correlated with the evaluation of the product. The checklist breaks down what I want to see in each part of the document, and the students use it to go over their peers' work.
As I circulate around the room during the editing process, I find that nearly everyone stays on task the entire time, and everyone contributes comments in writing and orally.
After the editing process, students then must work alone on the final product without help from others. This limitation provides an incentive to use the editing time wisely.