Using Canvas, Instead of Class Time, for Peer Reviews: Two Perspectives

From Lindee Owens —

Peer Reviews are generally as useful as you have the time to make them. In WAC training, we promote peer review to folks in other disciplines and explain that it works best when you teach your students how to do it. Discuss it and model it in class before moving it online. And we’re right. But my classes are mediated, and I don’t want to use the limited class time for peer review. So, like many of you, I moved it online. How well does Canvas respond to my desire to train students to read and write a peer review that both reviewer and writer benefit from?

Canvas offers a big box of pedagogical tools. Those of us who use the interface regularly know that the metric used when deciding to use a specific tool is not always “How perfectly does the tool do what I want?” Sometimes the metric is “How much of my life will I never get back if I use it?” This article lets you see what a complicated calculus those metrics present.

Steffen Guenzel has graciously shared his online peer review protocol with me. He uses Canvas’ Peer Review tool. He manually selects groups of four or five students to respond to each other’s drafts. The tool allows them to individually comment directly on each student’s draft in their group. The reviewers do not see each other’s comments. The writer sees all their comments. I have seen the elegant, robust results, and I am impressed. Here’s how to set it up:

1. Create an Assignment that asks students to upload their drafts to Webcourses; check the Peer Review box when creating the Assignment; Choose option 1, “Manually Assign Peer Reviews.”

2. Wait until students upload their drafts.

3. Go back into the Assignment settings and click on “Peer Reviews” underneath “Speed Grader” in the right frame; For each student in the class, add the names (from a drop down menu) of those students whose drafts you’d like the student to read. For most of us that means creating groups (Steffen creates five groups of five) on a piece of paper, to insure that you add everyone in the group to the appropriate group. And to be clear, you have to add those names to every student who submitted a draft. After each name, click “Add.”

4. For each assignment you want students to conduct a peer review, repeat this process.

Yikes, you’re saying. Manually selecting groups sounds like a time suck, and I’d have to be really careful. That’s right. You do.

Another option of this tool is to let Canvas match student writers and reviewers. Once you check the Peer Review box, you’re only one click and two boxes away from done. Click “Automatically Assign Peer Reviews”; choose the number of “Reviewers per user”; and select a date to “Assign Reviews.” Think about that for thirty seconds and I’ll bet you can imagine five ways that plan can go south.

Two years ago (before I knew Steffen), I worked hard to make this tool work. I carefully created groups of students in advance, matching strengths and weaknesses (groups of 3—which was too small, but only hindsight is instructive in these cases). Then I created the assignment and clicked that little Peer Review box. Then I waited. My carefully selected groups imploded when students did not submit drafts and so could not participate. “No one reviewed my paper and/or no one in my group posted a draft,” students emailed me. “That won’t affect my grade, will it? Students “couldn’t find” drafts to peer review. Then they couldn’t find their reviewed drafts. I spent lots of time setting it up and even more time managing it.
Now I ignore the tool and still conduct peer reviews online. Here’s how I set it up:

1. Online I assign my students to read Richard Straub’s “Responding, Really Responding”; I follow that reading assignment with an online quiz I created to increase the odds they actually read it.

2. We talk about the reading for 10 minutes in class, and I model the appropriate rhetoric—“As a reader I had problems with….”

3. I create a Graded Discussion with instructions for students to paste their drafts into the Discussion box, head their drafts with questions and concerns for their peer reviewer, and to review the draft posted above theirs by Replying to the student’s post. The first person who posts reviews the draft of the last person who posted.

From Debbie Weaver I learned to offer “Instructor Feedback” to the first five drafts. It goes a long way in the fight against students’ procrastination. I invite students to read my comments (and everyone else’s). I summarize my comments in an Announcement before the final draft is due.

How well does my method work? It’s not perfect—students post their draft as a Reply to the person above them, which results in that person not getting any feedback. Students ignore my instructions and reply to someone they know. But it’s manageable.

I don’t know how Steffen assesses his students’ work. You can ask him. What I like best about my method is how easy it is to assess. I use the Speed Grader tool for that Discussion. When I’m assessing Emily’s work, all I see is her draft, and the peer review she posted for Aaron’s draft. I don’t need to read Aaron’s draft to evaluate Emily’s peer review. And I can comment on her draft and her peer reviewing skills at the same place and at the same time.

Having a toolbox means you often have different options for achieving, if the not the same, sometimes an acceptable result. It’s your toolbox. You decide.

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