Thoughts on Student Peer Reviews

Elesha Coffman

This semester I found myself assigned to teach an online course on John Calvin's Institutes that would include a substantial research paper. So many challenges here. One of the ways I tried to play to the strengths of my self-motivated, though scattered, seminary students while keeping my own workload manageable was by inserting a peer-review cycle into the writing process. Because I couldn't explain this process to anyone in person, I also wrote the world's most detailed assignment prompts.

And so, if you are currently plowing through a stack of papers and wishing someone else had laid eyes on them before they got to you, here's the list of guidelines for peer review that I distributed to my students. Feel free to re-use. I don't know yet if they'll actually improve the quality of the papers I receive (I've just started grading them), but I do know that students have had more exposure to what I consider essential elements of historical writing than they would have if all the feedback they got was a grade.

The big things you're looking for as a peer reviewer are:

1. Thesis. The paper needs to have one, and you as the reader should be able to locate it easily. (For a paper of this length, the thesis should appear no later than the end of the second page.) The thesis needs to take a position, grounded in the sources consulted, that another scholar could conceivably disagree with if he or she read the same sources. The thesis should be followed by an indication of how the paper will proceed through its argument.

[I had posted a sample scholarly article about Calvin; here I identified its thesis and plan of attack. I had also posted a whole separate presentation on historical arguments.]

As a reviewer, when you get to the part of the essay that states its thesis and lays out its approach, stop and make some notes. Restate the thesis in your own words. Describe where you think the paper is going. If you can't restate the thesis, if you can't tell where the paper is going, or if, as it turns out, the rest of the paper doesn't match the thesis or go where you expected, these are problems that the writer needs to know about.
2. Structure. There are lots of viable structures for research papers. The key is that the structure for this paper makes sense and accomplishes the writer’s goals. As a reviewer, call attention to any pieces that are missing, unnecessary, or seem to be out of place. What manifests as an “awkward transition” is usually a logical misstep—i.e., the writer couldn’t figure out how to get from point B to point Q because he or she shouldn’t have been moving from point B to point Q in the first place.

3. Sources. This paper needs to engage primary sources (including, foremost, the Institutes) and secondary sources. “Engage” can mean cite, paraphrase, or follow the ideas of. It should involve analysis (here’s what the writer says, here’s what’s most important to him or her, here’s how one idea leads to another) but not evaluation (here’s where I agree or disagree with the writer)—except insofar as you might evaluate another author’s work as a historian (this writer sees X in Calvin, but when you examine the Insitutes, you see that the writer is reading Calvin incorrectly). As a reviewer, tell the writer what’s working and what’s not working in terms of using sources. Are there too many direct quotations, or too few? Are the paraphrases clunky or—much worse—verging on plagiarism? Are all sources cited, preferably in Turabian/University of Chicago style? Are all of the writer’s points bolstered in one way or another by the sources?

One thing to look out for is a (long) direct quotation ending a paragraph. As a writer, it is better to end a paragraph with your own words, rather than someone else’s. Never assume that the reader will “get” what seems to you the obvious point of a quotation. The longer the quotation, the more important it is to tell the reader what it says and how it advances your argument. Or just don’t use long quotations at all.

4. Does the paper fulfill the assignment? The assignment is a 15-18 page research paper (plus bibliography; that doesn’t count toward page total) that puts Calvin in conversation with the past, his present, and/or subsequent developments in theology. The page count matters. That this is a research paper, not an informal essay or a sermon or an opinion piece, matters. And that the paper puts Calvin in conversation matters. [I followed with a narrative rubric describing an A paper, a B paper, and so on.]



Laura Leibman said…

Thanks for this thoughtful post! One of the things that I added this spring to my peer review sheet for our research paper was prompts for positive feedback at the beginning at the end of the sheet:

(START) Best Thing About this Paper________________

Most Interesting Thing I Learned_______________

(END) Thing that I admire most about this paper and would like to try in my own_______________

This led to much happier group sessions and seemed to make the constructive criticism they gave each other go over better.
Paul Harvey said…
great idea, Laura -- going to add that to my sr. thesis peer reviews