Fostering trust in peer-to-peer learning
by Lisa Blankenship
Writing groups or small group work in college writing classes became a common practice in the 1970s and 80s coming out of research in Rhetoric and Composition around the social nature of knowledge/epistemology and the focus on process rather than product in composition pedagogy. Including its most well-known iteration, peer review, small group work of all kinds became common practice in composition courses around the country during this time, building on the theory and research for writing centers and peer-to-peer learning in the work of Brooklyn College professor Kenneth Bruffee.
When I was in graduate school focusing on Rhet/Comp from 2005-2013, using small groups for peer review and discussing texts and low-stakes, scaffolded assignments leading to major writing projects was virtually ubiquitous. The idea was foreign that a writing course would be conducted using a lecture model, or even a discussion model of sitting around discussing texts rather than focusing mostly on student writing. And discussing student writing–doing the often messy work of revising and giving and getting feedback–is best done in small groups that learn to trust one another, in addition to getting feedback from an instructor. The idea that students can be valuable readers and a real audience for other students’ writing not only builds on research in Rhet/Comp during the 70s and 80s, it also has resonances with the historic tutorial model of education at Oxford and Cambridge going back to the fifteenth century, and taking its modern shape of small groups of students (usually 2-3) working with a tutor or faculty member in the mid-nineteenth century.
I started using writing groups in my classes in graduate school over ten years ago, at first for peer review, and then beyond just peer review to include almost every aspect of the class. Writing groups form such an important part of my teaching that I can’t imagine not using them now. They represent in tangible form, for me, a student-centered pedagogy, and one that brings me not only a lot of (frankly) joy in teaching, but that also saves me a great deal of time! Putting the onus on students for their own learning helps students learn more and takes the focus off of me, so for me this approach is a win-win on many levels.
The first week of class I let students know that much of the learning they’ll be doing in the class will happen in small working groups, which I refer to as writing groups. I typically use groups of three, though I’ve done groups of five in online classes this year and may stay with this. I form groups at around week three, or after I’ve had a chance to see the levels students are at with their writing.
I try to make sure there’s a stronger writer in each group, and I try to make sure students who may be struggling more with their writing or who may not have had as much experience with writing in high school are together with stronger writers and dispersed evenly among groups. The idea would be to have writers at a variety of levels in each group, in other words, so that stronger writers can help other writers and can benefit from being in the role of a kind of teacher in their groups, although I don’t express it this way overtly to students.
I also take other factors into consideration when forming groups: I sometimes will ask students whom they want to be in a group with to help with solidarity and bonding in the class, and I try to take identity markers like gender, ethnicity, and disability into consideration. If I know there are trans or queer students in the class who have outed themselves to me in some way, I try to make sure they’re in a group that can be a safe space for them if at all possible. I may put an alpha male in the class with another alpha male rather than with two quiet females who seldom speak in groups and certainly not in a whole class setting. I may put the two quiet females with another female who is more outgoing and doesn’t mind taking the lead, hoping that being in an all-female group may help quieter students feel more comfortable speaking up. I’m not afraid to move groups around if they’re not working, though I find this usually isn’t necessary (though maybe I’m just not listening well enough and need to think more about getting student feedback than I currently do).
I usually keep the groups the same the entire semester. My thinking on this is that building trust is a key part of teaching, whether trust in me as the instructor or trust in their peers, and being with the same people can help facilitate this. It doesn’t always work, of course, and again, if a group dynamic isn’t working I’ll adjust the makeup of the groups to try and help facilitate a better experience in the class for students.
What the small groups do in my classes
Writing groups in my classes discuss the weekly readings with one another using platforms like Google Docs and Blogs@Baruch. (I plan to try out the social annotation platform and ethical ed tech platform hypothes.is in the spring as well.) Students also brainstorm paper topics with their writing group, giving them an opportunity to work with their group from the germination of a paper all the way through various peer review/feedback stages until its final draft. This kind of time spent together in the class has the potential of building a great deal of trust between students, and, as I describe below, it gives them an important audience apart from me. Sometimes I think writing for their peers gets them much more invested than writing for me, though I hope always to be a good audience for them, someone who cares about what they have to say.
I also sometimes do group conferences on drafts, which can save time as well as provide students with “crowdsourced” feedback as readers that may be as valuable or more valuable as feedback I can give them.
In short, I love using small groups. I’d love to hear how you’ve used them, reservations you have, and ideas for how I could expand my own thinking on them. Below are some issues related to writing groups you may want to consider in your own teaching.
Definitions and types of small groups
- Small Groups (groups of students within a class, usually numbering 3-5, that do the work of the class in a micro-setting; students can either do their own writing or write collaboratively)
- Writing Groups (small groups focused on generating ideas for individual student writing, and in which members give feedback on works-in-progress, acting as an audience and readers for students’ writing)
- Reading Groups (similar to book clubs, these are small groups focused on reading common texts and discussing it among the group, generating insights students may not be able to come up with on their own)
- Peer Response Groups (similar to writing groups but for one-off responses to major writing assignments)
When I refer to Writing Groups in my own classes, I mean group work not as an add-on feature of the class but a defining feature, not just for peer review but like a mini-class.
Why use writing groups in writing classes?
- Creates an audience beyond the instructor / Creates encounters with difference (Donna Qualley)
Donna Qualley in Turns of Thought discusses the use of writing groups not only for feedback on written drafts, but also for the purpose of getting other perspectives on whatever topics students are working through. This idea brings the idea of public writing into the classroom, breaking down the binaries of “classroom/public” and “personal/academic” writing. Her use of writing groups for this purpose supports what she calls reflexive practice: getting at the “why” behind our beliefs, interrogating our beliefs as we compare them to others’ and to our past selves” (39). For her, reflection is what an individual does within herself, a unidirectional thought process; reflexive practice, she writes, “occurs in response to a person’s critical engagement with an ‘other’” (11). A key term for her, one that emerges in Krista Ratcliffe’s Rhetorical Listening, is understanding: “In the process of trying to understand an other, our own beliefs and assumptions are disclosed, and these assumptions, themselves, can become objects of examination and critique” (11). Reflexive practice occurs in an “in between” space of liminality, a threshold, a place of uncertainty and teachability—a place of learning. For Qualley the process of writing itself, when it’s done in the context of a writing group deeply immersed in reflexive practice, offers the possibility of what she calls “earned insights,” similar to those learned through personal experience.
- Resists the banking model of passive instruction and puts more of the onus on students for their own learning / inquiry vs lecture model (Paulo Freire)
- Enacts and emphasizes the social nature of learning / zone of proximal development / social epistemology (Lev Vygotsky, Kenneth Bruffee)
- Problematizes learning / emphasizes learning to ask questions vs looking for the right answer (Ann Berthoff)
- Crowdsourcing / group conferences / the wisdom of crowds / together we have more knowledge than separately (relates to Vygotsky’s ZPD)
Functions of writing groups
- Idea generation for writing
- Discussing readings/course texts
- Feedback on drafts (peer review)
- Solidarity / underlife / check-in / notes / touch point for the class / your “people” in the class
Types of groups and the theories/research behind them
Homogenous or tracked groups (or classes)
Theory: strong students will be slowed down; weaker students will get lost
Theory: closer to Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development; students as both teacher and learner
- Gender: mixed education vs single gender (pros and cons)
- Ethnicity: cultural codes regarding speaking up / being vocal in class
- Students’ educational backgrounds
- LGBTQ+ students
Keep groups static or mix them up?
Mix them up
Con: can be hard to switch around if something goes wrong (like this semester with me, for example)
Pro: fresh and diverse perspectives
Con: not as much trust possibly
Writing groups in online contexts
What are the implications and applications of writing groups for online teaching environments we find ourselves in right now?
- Importance of tech to facilitate groups
- Discord and Slack
- Google Docs for collaboration
- Breakout rooms in Zoom
- Using Google docs for in-class writing / one doc for whole class or across writing groups / real time drafting in a single doc gives composing a new dimension
- Blogs@Baruch (asking students to post about a reading before class or in a mostly asynchronous class, and asking them to respond to 1-2 other students’ posts as well)
- Social annotation of texts:
- VitalSource / Join the Conversation
- Wait until after the first paper (or at least a few weeks into the term) to form groups.
- Adjust as needed.
- Train students (on how to give good feedback on others’ writing / see “Responding—Really Responding—to Other Students’ Writing” by Richard Straub in Join the Conversation, ENG 2100 course reader / model peer review / be specific about how to annotate and respond to others’ posts in reading responses, either using the discussion board on Blackboard, Blogs@Baruch, or a social annotation platform like hypothes.is)
- Assess as part of final paper writer’s cover letter or in a survey using Google Forms or other platform: Who in your group has contributed the most to your learning this term? How has your writing group added to your learning in this class? What advice would you offer me about using or forming groups in future classes?
Berthoff, Ann. The Making of Meaning: Metaphors, Models, and Maxims for Writing Teachers. Portsmouth, NJ: Boynton/Cook, 1981.
Bruffee, Kenneth. “Collaborative Learning and the ‘Conversation of Mankind.’” College English (46.7) Nov 1984: 635-52.
Freire, Paulo. A Pedagogy of Hope. NY: Continuum Press, 1994.
Qualley, Donna. Turns of Thought: Teaching Composition as Reflexive Inquiry. Portsmouth: Boynton/Cook, 1997.
Roskelly, Hephzibah. Breaking (into) the Circle: Group Work for Change in the English Classroom. Portsmouth, NJ: Boynton/Cook, 2003.
Student Peer Review and Response: A Critical Sourcebook. Eds. Stephen J. Corbett and Michelle LaFrance. NY: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2018.
Vygotsky, Lev S. Thought and Language. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 1991.
Dr. Lisa Blankenship has been teaching college writing for fifteen years but considers herself a continual student and learner, especially this year. She earned her PhD in Rhetoric and Composition from Miami University of Ohio in 2013 and joined the faculty at Baruch College in fall 2014, where she serves as Director of First-Year Writing.