WIS-ful Thinking Blog

The WIS-ful Thinking Blog

is a biweekly sampler of the new, developing, and tried-and-true in writing and writing instruction at Western Washington University.

Here you’ll find offerings from Writing Instruction Support and the Learning Commons, plus writing tips and trends, Frequently Asked Questions, and information about the WWU writing curriculum.

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WIS-ful Thinking Blog

My peer critique partner wasn’t exactly helpful…

Posted on: Thursday, May 25, 2017 - 9:00am

Topic(s): Teaching Writing

(A reminder first: interest forms for the summer Backward by Design and SoTL residency are due May 31st. Both offer fully-funded, collegial opportunities for course and instructional development: https://library.wwu.edu/node/18552)

On the upside, peer critiques can accomplish a lot for students:

  • They learn other students share the same victories and struggles.
  • When they see a problem in another person’s work, they’re more likely to notice it in their own; when they see a solution they can try out something similar.
  • Raising the stakes on work-in-progress isn’t always a bad thing, and drafts that must be shared with the full class tend to be stronger drafts.
  • When the instructor isn’t the only critic, it’s more difficult to dismiss criticism as somebody’s personal bias or oversight.
  • A good critique from a peer is good feedback an overworked instructor doesn’t need to supply.


But what about when peer feedback isn’t good feedback? If you’ve read and heard a lot of peer critiques, you know they can be uneven. Students may put less effort into them than they should. They may bring up points that are irrelevant to the actual project at hand. There may be problems with tone—an insensitively-worded criticism, for instance. When papers receive multiple critiques, those critiques might be contradictory.

Of course this never happens in the real professional world populated by real professionals. Anonymous peer reviewers are never tactless or harsh, right?

Real clients never ask writers to make a change and then decide they liked it better the first way after all. Right?

I’ll bet you’ve never been told you should have covered Topic Q by a reviewer who, as it happens, is the author of a book on Q.   

I can tell you I personally never received, on the same dark day last November, two editorial reports: one asking for more Part A and less Part B, and the other for less A and more B. THAT NEVER HAPPENS.

It happens all the time.

Learning to deal with problem critiques is part of learning to write.

So—some suggestions:

  • Talk about real-world peer critique problems when you assign peer critiques. Let students know that dealing with peer feedback is a transferrable skill worth mastering—as is learning to produce a constructive critique themselves.
  • Discuss strategies for dealing with problem critiques. (For example, when I receive contradictory reviews, I talk to my editor. When I teach with peer critiques, I offer to play that editorial role for my students.)
  • Assign more than one critique partner for each project. It’s good for students to have access to second opinions.
  • Have students hand in the peer critiques they received along with their final papers. That way you know what feedback they already received—and they know you know.
  • Improve peer responses by assigning specific critique questions and avoiding yes-no answers. “Does this paper have a thesis?” will bring a “Yes” from a sympathetic fellow student. But if you ask “What’s the thesis of this paper?” and the answer isn’t what the writer thought it was, that conflicting response provides useful information.
    • Your critique questions will vary depending on what you want to see in the assignment, but here’s a sample with some questions I’m using this week for a 400-level English research paper.


And if you’ve read this far, have a good summer! Writing Instruction Support takes a two-month hiatus June 15-August 15th, so this is the last WIS-ful Thinking post until Fall. See you then!