Collaborative Peer Groups

Confidence in community

by Harold Ramdass

Peer review exercises can improve students’ writing, reading, and critical skills, and promote their agency in decentering learning. The virtues of peer review exercises also reveal their limitations: often late stage and product oriented, they ask students to respond in ways about which they may feel ill prepared and uncomfortable. I have changed my peer-review practice in two mutually reinforcing ways: I ask for less comprehensive reviews of drafts (e.g., inventories of ideas), and I use ongoing collaborative peer groups, the focus of this piece.

Collaborative peer groups encourage social learning by creating spaces and occasions for student-centered and student-generated conversation. I create groups comprising students of different strengths, competencies, learning styles, and personalities in the third or fourth week of semester after my own assessment. I limit group size to three or four students, and pairs where useful. Student collaborators determine the times, formats, and occasions for conversation: in-person or online and synchronous; online and asynchronous; audio, video, or chat.

I imagine the groups’ work as bridging the chat among students before an in-person class starts, the opening conversation on the reading experience when class starts, and the support of a writing group. A general prompt suggesting kinds of interactions helps: conversations on a specific text, reflections on class, discussing prompts, choosing a paper topic, or feedback on writing. Writers can brainstorm; get moral support or mirroring responses to gauge their own clarity or purpose; seek feedback on areas to strengthen, expand, or delete, and how; or other analytical and critical responses.

To model the process, I dedicate the first 15 minutes of two or three classes for initial exchanges, and breakout rooms work well. I do not actively monitor groups, but check in individually with students over the semester. Students benefit from observing others’ processes, and from asking for, giving, and receiving help in both empathetic and critical ways. They gain confidence, build community, and are more willing to undertake the work I ask of them. They are also more thoughtful, uninhibited, and engaged in in-class peer review assignments.

Though the semester is well underway, the longer final research assignment still may furnish a timely opportunity for experimenting with collaborative peer groups.

Peter Elbow and Pat Belanoff’s, “From Sharing and Responding” (PDF), in Student Peer Review and Response: A Critical Sourcebook (edited by Steven Courbett and Michelle LaFrance, Bedford/St. Martins, 2018, p. 161-171) provides an excellent and succinct overview of the types of conversations, feedback, and empathy that a student audience creates for student writers. Their insights and suggestions transfer well to the purposes of  collaborative peer groups, which also create such audiences outside of class.

Dr. Harold Ramdass earned his BA in English Honors at Baruch College and his PhD from Princeton University, specializing in Early Modern drama and poetry. With over twenty years of classroom and writing center experience, he has taught at Baruch since 2002. He considers writing essential to understanding and expressing the self, engaging others, and negotiating how we inhabit the spaces we claim.