LRC, Smarthinking, Students in Class: What Can Peer Review Do for You?

In this blog, I give a pep talk for peer review, introduce USF’s CLAQWA rubric, and identify the fall 2011 LRC writing tutors.

As anyone who’s been through a WI workshop knows, I’m a fan of carefully guided peer review.  Even expert writers need feedback from readers as they draft and revise.  Discussing work in progress can engage students more deeply with the material; thinking about how a text conveys its message can building reading as well as writing skills.  Well done, peer review is a win-win assignment—creating an opportunity for student learning and smoothing papers’ roughest edges before you comment or grade.

But many of us have also had experiences when peer review failed, giving students false confidence, for instance, after a round of vacuous “good job” comments.


The key to worthwhile peer review lies in the guidance you provide.  When the University of South Florida academic assessment team piloted a structured peer review process in several courses, it made many faculty converts.  Engineering professor Ralph Fehr commented,

“When introduced to the peer review process, I was somewhat skeptical as to how much, if any, it would improve the quality of the students’ writing. I was doubtful that the results would justify the effort put into the review process. After several semesters of participation in the Peer Review Pilot Project, I have seen substantial improvement in the organization and structure of most of the essays evaluated. I have also observed an increased level of collaboration and interaction among the students in non-writing assignments, which I am confident is a result of the peer review training. I will continue to integrate the peer review process into my courses to allow my students to continue to improve their communication skills.”

USF uses a rubric called the CLAQWA.  You can get a sense of it from USF’s 2006 “Assessment Brief.”  I’m on the trail of the revised version mentioned (emails are bouncing), to post on our MUIR wiki.  You can preview it in Appendix B of Irene Suzanne Penner’s 2010 dissertation, “Comparison of Effects of Cognitive Level and Quality Writing Assessment (CLAQWA) Rubric on Freshman College Student Writing.” 

In straightforward language, the CLAQWA looks at 15 “traits,” elaborating five criteria under each one.  I leave one as an example in my outline summary below:


Level Trait 1: Assignment Requirements

Level Trait 2: Main Idea

5 The writer clearly has and maintains a main idea throughout.

4 The main idea is clear, although a rare extraneous element is introduced.

3 The paper has a main idea, but additional unrelated ideas distract the reader.

2 The main idea is not maintained or it is unclear.

1 The paper lacks a main idea or appears to reflect the writer’s “free association.”

Level Trait 3: Audience

Level Trait 4: Purpose


Level Trait 5: Opening

Level Trait 6: Coherence Devices

Level Trait 7: Paragraph Construction

Level Trait 8: Closing


Level Trait 9: Reasoning

Level Trait 10: Quality of Details

Level Trait 11: Quantity of Details


Level Trait 12: Word Choice

Level Trait 13: Comprehensibility

Level Trait 14: Sentence Construction

Level Trait 15: Point of View


Level Trait 16: Grammar and Mechanics [I don’t know why this is out of order in Penner’s appendix]

A number of peer review rubrics/guidelines are circulating on the Web, up for “citation” and adaptation.  I’m happy to go searching for a model that might work for your class.


Don’t forget the notion of “guidance” if you recommend that your students use the LRC.  You can arm your students with specific questions so that the peer tutor doesn’t have to try to make sense of the whole paper in half an hour.  Your student might say, “My professor asked me to come here to talk about my introduction … to see if my body paragraphs tie back to my thesis … to think about introducing quotes in my paper….”  Remind students to bring your written assignment with them to the LRC.

The LRC will be missing Liz Messman this fall (and moving to a trailer, temporarily, at some date TBA), but it has a great staff.  I hope to have some ongoing conversations with the writing tutors.

I met some of them at the segment of training Liz gave last week:

    1. (veteran) Erica Prong, graduate assistant in the humanities
    2. (veteran—but she’s on study abroad this fall, I believe) Erin Evans, psychology
    3. (new) Krysti Hartman, fashion merchandising
    4. (new) Anna Macedonia, art education
    5. (new) Niven McCall, history
    6. (new) Adrianne Morris, English
    7. (new) Nicholas Papadakis, politics (and philosophy, I believe he said)
    8. (new) Melany Su, biology
    9. (new) Casey Trottier, business

Also on the writing list but not at that training:

  1. (new) Rochelle Coates, graphic design (will do makeup training)
  2. (veteran) Rachael Raske, psychology (she’s done writing training before)
  3. (veteran) Cyndi Trang, biology (she’s done writing training before)

Click here for a list of the entire staff.


There’s now a tab in Blackboard that will take students to Smarthinking (no need to go through tools).  Preliminary data from last year’s pilot suggests a good result: LRC use was up slightly despite the introduction of Smarthinking’s online “e-structor” feedback, which student writers often sought when the LRC was closed.  Again, remind your students to cut and paste from your assignment (this is not the place for guesstimating!) into Smarthinking.  You may ask students to attach a copy of their feedback.

If you’re working with peer review, let me know how it goes.  And please, feed our bank of materials on the wiki!

~Sylvia, x6478


Teaching Tip #3: Writing is Learning

Try this experiment:  ask your students to spend 5 minutes writing about a topic before beginning class discussion on the topic. You don’t need to grade it or even collect it, although you might want to use the students’ work as a way to take attendance.   Why do this?  Research findings suggest that students who write about topics learn more than those who do not.

Drabick, Weisberg, Paul, and Bubier (2007) compared the test performance of students who either wrote or thought about a topic for 5 minutes before engaging in a 10 minute class discussion of the topic. Ungraded writing produced larger improvements in student performance on both factual and conceptual questions than did merely thinking about the topic, with a larger benefit for conceptual questions. Even when student writing is not graded, these assignments can be effective strategies for improving student learning.

Brief, in-class “process” writing has other advantages.  Students who are reluctant to contribute to class discussion are more likely to do so if they have had a few minutes to gather their thoughts and write them down.  You can avoid calling on habitual responders and randomly ask students to share what they have written.

In-class process writing can also serve to quickly assess student knowledge about a topic.  You can use it as a pre-test, to assess reading comprehension or as an application exercise.  None of these writing assignments need to take more than a few minutes of class time, they require little faculty grading time, and they enhance student thinking and learning.

How do you use writing to learn in your classes?  Please share your ideas with us!

Want to hear more about teaching content through writing?  Join us for the faculty conversation on January 27, 2010 (11:30 am, main campus dining hall) with nationally recognized writing-across-the-curriculum expert Terry Zawacki.

Terry Zawacki will also be leading two informal writing-related conversations that morning–all are welcome.
9:30-10:20 (Ballston): group vs. individual writing projects
10:30-11:30 (main campus): writing and digital/new media

Thanks to Claudia Stanny at the University of West Florida for portions of this tip.

Drabick, D. A. G., Weisberg, R., Paul, L., & Bubier, J. L. (2007). Keeping it short and sweet: Brief, ungraded writing assignments facilitate learning. Teaching of Psychology, 34, 172-176.

Responding to Student Writing–Straight Talk

Writing for the Chronicle of Higher Ed, English professor James Lang reports favorably on using Dragon NaturallySpeaking voice recognition software to “write” reponses to student papers.  Lang notes that the software prompted his political scientist colleague to respond in a more conversational tone, so the benefit was not just functional but pedagogical.