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This issue of CDTL Brief is the last of a two-part instalment featuring the teaching practices of faculty members who have won the Excellent Teacher Award (currently known as Annual Teaching Excellence Award) for three consecutive academic years (2001/2002–2004/2005).

October 2005, Vol. 8, No. 7 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Writing as Dialogue
 
Dr Sunita Anne Abraham
Department of English Language & Literature
 

In a CDTLink article published in November 2001, I highlighted the integral role of writing in the process of knowledge construction, arguing that if we genuinely believe that our students learn best by constructing and evaluating the knowledge that we wish them to acquire, we need to view learning as an apprenticeship not only to the modes of inquiry of a discipline, but also its writing/discursive paradigms. I ended that article with two suggestions on how we might use writing to drive student learning:

  1. Creating writing tasks that engage students in problem-finding (as well as problem-solving) so that they might learn how to create a viable research space within which to articulate meaningful research questions; and,

  2. Using peer feedback to help students experience writing as a dialogic process involving drafting and revision, based on self-critique as well as authentic reader feedback1 (Abraham, 2001).

I have been using both strategies above in individual writing assignments for a number of years now. But this semester (Semester 2, AY 2004/2005), I had the opportunity to adapt both strategies to suit a group writing assignment for EL1101E "The Nature of Language", comprising 446 students from a variety of departments and faculties, only six of whom were English Language majors. What I would like to do in this paper is to focus on the peer review strategy, outlining both the process and the feedback received from tutors and students, in hopes that it might lead to further experimentation as we seek different ways to develop stronger writers and learners.

The Process

In tutorial one, the 18 tutorial groups (each comprising 25-27 students), were given approximately 20 minutes to form six smaller affinity groups2 of four to five members each. It was explained to students that the purpose of affinity groups was to provide intellectual, moral and practical support for its members. Each affinity group would take turns facilitating tutorial discussion, and work together on a small research project of their choice, culminating in a group-authored report of four to five pages.

All groups had a fortnight to prepare a first draft of their project report. A tutorial was dedicated to peer-review, and all groups were instructed to exchange drafts with the group acting as their reading partner at least two days before the peer review tutorial. This was to give each group time to consolidate the feedback they wanted to give their partner group before the peer-review tutorial. I provided students with brief written guidelines on how to read the drafts critically, highlighting questions to consider as groups read the introduction, body, and conclusion of their partner group's draft. In the peerreview tutorial, each group would return their partner group's draft, and take turns discussing/clarifying the written feedback given/received.

Since the idea is to encourage collaborative learning, the tutor's role is minimal in the peer-review tutorial. The tutor only steps in, if and when pairs of groups ask for help with issues they are unable to resolve themselves after much discussion. I must admit there was some initial anxiety among some tutors about how the peer-review tutorial would work 'in practice'. So, it was encouraging to receive positive post-tutorial feedback from these tutors, expressing surprise at how smoothly things had gone. The general report was that students knew exactly what to do, and got on with it, with only a few groups requiring assistance.

At this point, some readers may be wondering whether peer review needs to occur in tutorial given the availability of computer-mediated peer review in the form of, say, the IVLE 'Project' feature, which allows students to post comments online. The main reason I prefer faceto- face interaction for peer-feedback discussion is the opportunity that it provides for immediate clarification and repair.

In terms of student feedback on the peer-review activity, I was prepared for the surprise registered by some groups about the disparity between their own perception of their draft and their partner group's perception of the same. Especially encouraging was the acknowledgement by several groups that giving feedback to their partner group had helped them clarify problems in their own texts. In helping to strengthen their partner group's text, they were helping themselves--a win-win situation that none of the groups had anticipated.

Finally, to drive home the message that the onus rests on the writer to create the most effective text possible, each group was given a fortnight to revise their texts and provide a one- to two-page auto-critique, explaining how they had attempted to engage with the feedback received from their reading partner. This step is important because obtaining feedback is relatively easy. What is challenging is deciding what to do with the feedback obtained. Looking for (converging/diverging) patterns in the feedback, and deciding which suggestions to accept (wholly or partially) and why, are skills that all good writers must master. The sooner we introduce our students, therefore to the challenging task of engaging positively but critically with reader feedback, the sooner they can begin taking greater ownership of their writing and learning.

References

Abraham, S.A. (2001). 'Using Writing to Drive Learning'. CDTLink, a newsletter of the Centre for Development of Teaching and Learning, National University of Singapore. Vol. 5, No. 3, pp. 3 & 6. (Last accessed: 19 August 2005).

Endnotes

1 Although this is the process that most of us utilise in our own writing, the majority of my students say that they neither revise nor solicit feedback from their peers (i.e. the first draft is the final draft).

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2 The primary reason for an even number of affinity groups in each class was to allow for the easy pairing of affinity groups functioning as mutual reading partners. For example, in a class with six affinity groups, there would be a total of three pairs of reading partners.

 
 
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Inside this issue
Learning-A Matter of Life and Death
   
Writing as Dialogue
   
"I Hear You": Using Student Feedback to Improve Your Teaching
   
Exploring the 'Maze' of Teaching
   
Good Teacher and Macroeconomics