Require well-reasoned written explanations for feedback reviews

The main reason for asking for explanations when using peer review is that writing an explanation or rationale for the evaluative judgement of the peer work is a high level cognitive activity that involves the construction of new knowledge and understanding by students. More specifically, when students are asked to produce an explanatory commentary they will not only have to evaluate the work of their peers but they will also evaluate and rehearse their own understanding of the topic and ultimately construct a coherent response. Hence reviewing engages students in both external and internal judgements. Nicol (2012) has used the term 'reflective knowledge building' to describe these processes and to capture the fact that students reflect back on their own understanding and on their own work as they construct explanations for their peers.  This term is borrowed from Roscoe and Chi (2008) based on their work on peer tutoring. Another reason for asking students to construct a written response is that it further develops their writing abilities in the discipline. 

In many peer review scenarios students are asked to rate or mark other students' work. The wording of this principle suggests that there might be some limitations with this approach; the first is that marking or rating can be carried out without deep analysis of the assignment being reviewed. In contrast, to write a commentary activates quite sophisticated thinking and writing skills, as anyone who has reviewed a journal article will know. Writing a commentary also requires that students make multi-criterion judgements, In contrast marking or rating only requires a single, and at times intuitive, judgement. Caution about marking and rating is also warranted because research shows that asking students to do this often undermines the benefits to be had from reviewing (Kaufman and Schunn, 2011). In two studies carried out by Nicol (2013), for example, over 50% of the students reported that they did not think that students should mark each others work because they did not have the skills to do so. While some researchers are able to successfully implement peer assessment (rather than peer review) this, and other findings suggest that success is harder to achieve under these conditions.

A key question that arises here is what kinds of written responses should be sought from student reviewers?  In most cases, what is required is that students provide a sound rationale to justify their evaluative judgements; this means a well-reasoned explanation.  However, it is also important that students learn to make responsive judgements to written text and provide a 'reader' response stating what they think works or doesn't work even if they are not able to fully articulate this rationally.  Nonetheless, even in this latter scenario asking students to formulate an explanation for why they like something will be beneficial.  See also principle about establishing a perspective for reviews

Putting it into practice

  • Ask students for a written rationale for their peer reviews rather than single word responses or grades.
  • Give examples of the length of response you would like to see (e.g.'in a few sentences comment on...')
  • Ask students to review in pairs or groups; they might provide an agreed commentary or a reflective report highlighting where they agreed or disagreed in their judgements.
  • Have students use specific genres for their review outputs (e.g. a newspaper article, a letter to the author, a recommendations report, a quality review, a non-evaluative reader-response)
  • Ask for constructive commentaries for reviews rather than an account of what is wrong or deficient in the peers' work (e.g. ask students to provide suggestions for improvement, to highlight alternative perspectives or approaches, or to identify specific features of the work that are already good and that warrant further development)
  • When students make comparative judgements of peer work or provide rankings, always ask them to provide reasons for their judgements or rankings.
  • Ask students to write a reflective commentary on their experiences of reviewing, whether individually, in pairs or in groups: the might recount the difficulties they experienced and what they learned from the process.
  • Give examples of commentaries produced in professional practice contexts as models
  • Review commentaries could be produced by groups or pairs rather than individuals so as to encourage more considered and thoughtful responses.
  • Devise your own examples.