Keepin’ it Real: How to Write Effective Comments for Peer Reviews A Presentation by Erin Trauth, Angela Tartaglia, Richard Ellman, Melissa Jones, and Andrea Dennin for the University of South Florida FYC Program
Why is it important to provide effective comments during peer review? To start, peer review has many benefits, including: • The ability to get feedback on your writing before the instructor sees it • The ability to see your own strengths and weaknesses after reading and responding to another paper • A greater sense of audience – it is not just your instructor reading your work! • The chance to learn new information from your peers about the subject you may also be writing on • The opportunity for feedback, feedback, and more feedback! The essence of the peer review is your comments – without strong, specific comments, the peer review can often be useless!
Something to consider… In a national survey of 560 teachers of writing and 715 of their students, Sarah W. Freedman (1985, The Role of Response in Acquisition of Written Language, Berkeley: California UP) found that many teachers grieved over the use of peer review groups because they had difficulty getting students to respond effectively to one another's writing. Vague comments proliferate. The students, too, complained about the writing responses, saying that their peers rarely offered substantial help with their writing. The result is that such vague comments rarely translate into effective revisions, and this is unfortunate because when students receive concrete suggestions for revisions, they do revise with the suggestions in mind (Nina D. Ziv, 1983, "Peer Groups in the Composition Classroom: A Case Study," Conference on College Composition and Communication, Detroit, March 17-19).
Think About It: Imagine you have spent hours on a project for this class, and you are counting on getting a good grade on the final draft. While working on a draft, you see that you have some problems in your writing, but you are not quite sure how to fix them. Who is one of your best resources?
Your peers! Not to fear! Help is on the way! Now, imagine you are anticipating getting some really great, specific feedback from your peer reviewer. You go to class, switch papers, wait eagerly for your peer to help edit your work, and alas, you get your paper back. What did he write?
“I liked it.” “It was really good.” “I didn’t like your thesis.” Does this feedback help you fix your writing problems? Probably not. It is not specific enough.
As a peer reviewer, you can't just say, "I liked it," or "I didn't like it." Instead, you want to give the writer information that will really help to improve what the writer has written. What is important to remember is that while you should not be harsh or personal, you should be honest. Saying something works when it really does not will not help anyone.
There are, in general, three types of peer review comments: Most Effective Least Effective - Vague Comments - General, but Useful Comments - Specific, Directive Comments In order to make effective comments on a peer review, you want to make SPECIFIC, DIRECTIVE comments.
Vague Comments: Comments that are full of generalities, providing little or no specific direction for revision and/or comments that simply praise or disagree with the writing Example: “Try to revise the whole second page” or “I liked it” or “I do not really like this part” Think about it: what do comments like this really tell a person about their paper that will help them REVISE? Nothing.
General, but Useful Comments Note that this comment points to a specific place in the paper (the introduction) Comments that are too general but may provide some direction for revision Example: “I don’t like your introduction. Maybe describe the topic of public writing better.” A general, but useful comment is slightly better than a vague comment because it narrows what works (or does not work) to a specific area of the paper, as well as offering a specific suggestion. We can take this a step further, however, by providing a specific, directive comment. Note that this comment offers a suggestion for improvement
A Specific, Directive Comment Comments that not only point out a specific problem area of the paper, but also offer the writer a reason why the change is needed and a specific direction for revision. Example: “I do not think the introduction fully describes the topic of public writing in a way all readers will understand, which is necessary if you are going to fully analyze the topic in the next few paragraphs . Maybe you could use a quote that really defines public writing from a source, or you could expand on your first two sentences (which I have underlined in your paper).” Note that this comment points out a specific spot for improvement (the introduction) and states what exactly is wrong with it Note that this comment tells the writer why the change is needed Note that this comment offers two suggestions for improvement, and that the peer reviewer underlined the sentences that the writer could work on
Pop Quiz! In the following pairs, determine which of the two choices is the most effective comment: • “This is disorganized!” • "This section discusses both animal-rearing conditions and experimental methods, but the two are mixed together, making it difficult to focus on your points. Could you separate each into its own paragraph?” • “How are these references relevant?” • “The background and references given in paragraph 2 don't seem directly relevant to your thesis. I think we need references that give facts on the dangers of public writing specifically rather than references that explain the extensive history of blogging and its positive effects.” • “Your thesis is unclear.” • “I am having trouble understanding your thesis. The thesis needs to be clear so that the reader is sure of the position you are going to take in the rest of the paper. Could you state specifically the stance this paper will take on gun control?”
Now, let’s look at a few comments taken from real peer reviews and analyze their effectiveness. Remember, the best peer review comments include a specific statement of where an improvement needs to be made, why it should be changed and one-two suggestions for the writer in fixing the weakness!
For the peer review comment below, analyze whether or not the comment is effective in helping the writer. What type of comment is it (vague, general but useful, or specific –directive)? If it is effective, what makes it so? If it is not, what is the comment missing? What could the peer reviewer add to make the comment more effective? “I like your topic sentence, but it does not mix well with the rest of the paragraph.” Activity adopted from Gloria A. Neubert and Sally J. McNelis, Peer Response: Teaching Specific Revision Suggestions, The English Journal, 1990.
For the peer review comment below, analyze whether or not the comment is effective in helping the writer. What type of comment is it (vague, general but useful, or specific –directive)? If it is effective, what makes it so? If it is not, what is the comment missing? What could the peer reviewer add to make the comment more effective? “Maybe you should fix your conclusion.”
For the peer review comment below, analyze whether or not the comment is effective in helping the writer. What type of comment is it (vague, general but useful, or specific –directive)? If it is effective, what makes it so? If it is not, what is the comment missing? What could the peer reviewer add to make the comment more effective? “Your thesis statement needs to be more specific in regard to the advertisements you will be talking about in the paper, because it is important that the reader knows what to expect in the following paragraphs.”
For the peer review comment below, analyze whether or not the comment is effective in helping the writer. What type of comment is it (vague, general but useful, or specific –directive)? If it is effective, what makes it so? If it is not, what is the comment missing? What could the peer reviewer add to make the comment more effective? “I feel like your conclusion is not descriptive enough yet, and this paper should leave the reader with something to remember about San Diego if it is truly a travel ethnography. Maybe you could end with a quote from the musician you talked about in your last paragraph, or maybe use more of the second-person narrative you used in your introduction. I think something like that would be more descriptive and more memorable.”
In order to be an effective peer reviewer, remember to: • Read the writer’s essay carefully – just skimming the paper is not enough to really help the writer. • Be positive. Point out strengths as well as weaknesses, and be sensitive in how you phrase your criticism (“Could you clarify this section?” rather than “Your organization is a mess.”) • Be honest. Don’t say something works when it doesn’t. You’re not helping the writer if you avoid mentioning a problem. • Be specific. Rather than simply saying a paragraph is “confusing,” for example, try to point to a specific phrase that confuses you and, if possible, explain why that phrase is problematic. • Focus on one or two major areas for revision – it is not your job to completely edit the paper, but instead to focus on major flaws and offer suggestions