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The Art of Peer Commenting

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June 2, 2018

One of the cornerstones of a 21st-century classroom is communication. Communication between teacher and students, but also between students themselves. If you want to move away from a school where all communication flows from the teacher to the student to a more student centred classroom, encouraging students to comment and give feedback on each other’s work is the first thing to focus on.
It is also a well-known fact that immediate feedback is much more efficient than providing feedback days or even weeks after the fact. But any teacher will tell you that it is impossible to provide feedback to every learner immediately. Peer feedback is the solution to this problem, not only do learners take a more active role in the class, but they get immediate feedback without the poor teacher working herself into an early grave.
Giving feedback on each other’s work used to be a logistical nightmare, but with the advances in technology in our classroom, it has become one of the easiest activities to add to your teaching arsenal.

The reality of peer commenting

The first time I tried peer commenting was a considerable shock to the system. I thought because children today are immersed in a digital world where they comment on everything, from photos to videos to celebrity tweets, that they would know how to comment on each other’s work. The reality was a completely different ball game.

I expected that there might be some inappropriate comments like “Loser!” so we set out some ground rules about what is not appropriate at the start. What I did not expect was how mundane the comments would be. If somebody comment “Good job” there is really little you can reply to it and very little communication and learning take place. Even if ten people give you the same “Good job” comment, it still doesn’t count as learning. And if the comments were not mundane they were over the top. I can’t remember how many times somebody would comment “Excellent idea” when it is clearly a flawed idea.

Commenting is a skill, it needs to be taught.

The mistake I made was expecting that the learners will know how to give constructive feedback and comments. Like most skills in life, it needs to be taught and practised.
If you want to make peer feedback and commenting part of your teaching practice, you have to make a decision and commit to it. Kids will not get it right the first time, nor the second time. Plan to do at least six peer feedback activities with each class before you expect it to work, never mind seeing results. That means you should start practising peer feedback with your classes immediately. First day back from holiday, why not ask them to write something about the highlight of their vacation and comment on their friend’s holidays. It might have no link to your subject, but it is an ideal time to practice peer feedback.

Create a culture of commenting

The first few times you do a peer feedback activity you might find that students don’t want to comment. This is normally a combination of not having something constructive to say and being afraid to say the wrong thing. I always set the following guidelines for the first few activities until a culture of commenting has been established.

  • Comment on at least three classmate’s work.
  • Your comment should start with, “I am impressed by … but …” (I change this starter every time. For more ideas on comment starters download Commenting – Do’s and Don’ts)
  • You are not allowed to repeat something that has already been mentioned in a comment.
  • Go back and reply to everybody that commented on your work.
  • Reply to all the replies to your comments.

Do as I do, not just as I say

The first step to creating a culture of commenting is to model it. It might seem like an impossible and time-consuming task, but you have to model good commenting, and you can’t do that if you never give learners individual feedback. So start giving feedback and commenting on EVERYTHING. And make sure you are modelling constructive and insightful commenting that encourage conversations.
When you set the above mentioned “How was your holiday?” activity, set an hour aside and join in the conversation, it will be worth your time. If commenting on 150 learners seems impossible, create some shortcuts for yourself. You don’t need to give each learner a completely different comment, so open a spreadsheet and save your favourite comments there. Then you can just copy and paste them. Just don’t use the same comment for every learner.
As the commenting culture grows, you will find that you have to comment less, the learners will carry the conversation themselves.

A warning

While peer commenting is a valuable teaching tool, it needs to be managed, because it can also be abused. We all know that social media has opened the door to multitude new ways of bullying. And just like bullying can take place in your physical classroom, it can take place in your virtual classroom. So while you might not need to take part in every peer feedback activity, it is crucial that you keep a constant eye on what is being commented. More important, it is essential that the learners know that you are reading what they are writing. Also, remember that bullying takes place as much by what is being said as by what is not being said. So keep an eye open for the kid on whose work nobody comment.

Peer feedback makes it possible to provide learners with immediate feedback while teaching them valuable lessons about communication. But more than that, once you try it, you will realise that it is an incredibly powerful tool to give your learners a voice and encourage them to take an active role in their learning.

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