Writing Across the Curriculum at the University of New Haven
Best Practice for Revision

Best Practice for Revision

Since W instructors are required to emphasize revision, you may be wondering to what extent you should do this in your course. Generally, think about your goals for revision as such: Try to get students to write a paper well in advance of the due date, and try to get them to read what they have written and make some changes before submitting the document. This practice seems simple, but it’s often much easier said than done. Revision practices can be as simple as asking students to bring in a few paragraphs to class, and you check off that they have done so. This takes very little of your time, and students will have to re-read the document as they continue to work on it. However, we would suggest that you extend your revision practices further if possible. Peer review, instructor conferencing, and whole-class workshopping are helpful ways for doing so.

Peer Review

Peer review is a recommended strategy for helping students become better writers. Some of the touted benefits include the following:

  • Students catch mistakes in their own writing by analyzing others’ writing
  • Students help one another ensure their writing meets the goals of the assignment
  • Students practice their own writing, reading, listening, and speaking skills by writing and talking through constructive comments
  • Students gain confidence in their writing skills (Liu & Hansen, 2002)
  • Instructors are able to reinforce process writing

At a practical level, peer review can be time-efficient and offer flexibility for instructors who want to engage students in writing as a process but can’t offer feedback on drafts.

Many students have strong reactions to peer review—not all positive. Some students do not feel like they have the expertise to respond to others’ work, or they may feel they are strong writers, and their peers cannot contribute anything valuable. Some may not understand why you, as the teacher, don’t just give them all the feedback. Students can also tend to see peer review as busywork. Many teachers feel they do not have the time to integrate peer review into their class time and also have some of the same concerns students do about their ability to give one another useful feedback!

There are many strategies, however, for dealing with these concerns and ensuring that peer review is a beneficial practice in your classroom. As a W instructor, you are not required to implement peer review; however, we recommend considering it as one option among many that you deploy to effectively teach writing.

Training students how to be peer reviewers

One of the most common pieces of advice that you will find in the peer review literature is that you should train students how to be effective peer reviewers. However, most teachers—including myself—are a bit hesitant to take up valuable class time for this purpose. It’s worth considering, though, in order to have more productive peer reviews throughout the semester.

You might start by explaining to students some of the benefits of peer review. Consider showing students some effective peer review comments. Example:

  • Unhelpful comment: “This paragraph is disorganized.”
  • Helpful Comment: “This section discusses both animal-rearing conditions and experimental methods, but the two are mixed together. Could you separate each into its own paragraph?” (Check out a helpful online list here: Helpful Hints for Effective Peer Review)

Advise students to focus on higher-order concerns rather than sentence-level issues. Give students a structured process to follow rather than just leaving them on their own to peer review.  In other words, create a prompt or feedback criteria for students to use as they look at one another’s work. Also, remind writers to ask questions to their readers. Peer review is their opportunity to get someone else’s opinion about the areas they are struggling with, so encourage them to see this as an opportunity. Also, remind writers that they make the final decision about any changes.

Preparing peer review prompts

Nilson (2003) argued that the best kinds of questions to encourage students to answer in a peer review prompt are questions that encourage neutral, thorough, and informative responses. Specifically, he argued that we should create prompts with descriptive questions rather than questions that call for evaluations or judgments. Here are examples from John Bean (2011), illustrating the difference (p. 297):

Judgment QuestionDescriptive Question
1. Is the paper clearly written throughout?1. Underline any passages that you had to read more than once to understand what the author was saying.
2. Does the paper have an arguable thesis?2. In one or two sentences, state the position you think the writer is taking.
3.  How persuasive is the argument?3. After reading the paper, do you agree or disagree with the author’s position? Why or why not?

There are a variety of strategies for creating effective prompts, and the best strategies will depend on how much time you can give to peer review; your goals for the session; how much students have already written, and so forth.

See Resources – Peer Review Prompts for some sample peer review prompts. We’ll discuss some of the strengths and weaknesses of these prompts during the workshop.

If you don’t have time to do peer review in class, you can use Google Drive or Word Online to conduct it online. You can also ask students to write feedback in an email (Peer Review Prompts Sample #4).

There are some nice technologies, such as ELI, SWoRD, and MyReviewers, but they typically cost money. If you are committed to electronic peer review, you can write and ask to be a class tester. You might even consider showing students how to download a screen casting tool such as Screencast-o-matic and having them provide video feedback to one another.

Canvas also has a peer review feature that you can set up as you create an assignment. Instructors can match students manually, allow Canvas to automatically match, and keep submissions anonymous to the reviewer. However, in Canvas, peer review is not a graded activity, so if you want to give students credit for doing peer review, you have to create a separate assignment or use participation points. Finding the submission to review is a challenge for students, but the Canvas help videos provide a good resource to show students how to locate what they are expected to review. Digital Learning can assist with set-up and training.

Making peer review count

Students don’t take peer review seriously if their instructors fail to take it seriously. For that reason, numerous studies point to the importance of grading peer reviews—and even asking students to rate their reviewers. Some of the digital technologies we’ve discussed automate these processes. However, if you’re doing this yourself, it can be tedious to assign grades to peer reviews, and it can seem subjective.

If you’re worried about how to grade peer reviews, this is where training becomes even more important. If you’ve shown students examples of effective comments, it’s easier for you to mark them off for a comment that’s too simplistic, such as “good.”

If you’re more concerned about time, consider advising students that you’ll only grade one set of peer reviews from each student throughout the semester but they will not know ahead of time which set you will grade. You can also consider making peer review a relatively small grade and quickly skimming reviews, giving students full credit unless it’s quite apparent that the student did not offer thorough feedback.

Writing Conferences

Conferences provide another approach to helping students improve their writing and critical thinking skills and are a useful way to engage students in revision. Many students appreciate a more intimate setting for asking questions, and they like receiving feedback from the instructor prior to submitting an assignment. There are many different ways to set up conferences based on your preferences, time, and goals.

It can be useful to cancel class to hold individual conferences. If you choose to hold conferences, we recommend cancelling 1-2 classes to hold individual, 15-minute conferences. Students should be required to attend conferences and should receive an absence (and sometimes a penalty on paper) if they do not attend the conference or fail to come prepared. Canceling class usually alleviates any student complaints about not having the time to meet with you.  We also recommend advising students to work on their upcoming assignment during the time they would normally be in class (whether they follow this advice is another issue!).

At 15 minutes a piece, conferences certainly take up more time than you would normally be in class. However, you don’t have to do lesson planning for the week, it can be helpful to consider this when planning for conferences. Also, it’s typically enjoyable to meet with students individually and get to know them better, so instructors often find it’s worth the extra time if you can manage it. We recommend setting up a conference sign-up sheet a week in advance and ask those without flexible schedules to sign up first, since some conferences may have to be held outside of normal class time.

Some teachers read drafts prior to conferences, whereas others read them only during the conference. Some instructors find reading drafts prior to conferences to be very time-consuming, but it also results in much better conferences because they’ve had more time to think about the draft. Ultimately, this is a very personal preference that every teacher has to decide individually.  The decision can depend on the pacing of the semester; the type of assignment; and so forth.

If individual conferences seem too time-consuming, some teachers like to hold group conferences. These conferences are often lively and help students learn how to give and receive feedback. Students will learn even when you are giving advice to other students, and this is especially true at the idea-generation phase (Bean, 2011). You can create groups based on common writing problems, or you can create groups for certain stages of the writing process, such as idea brainstorming. It’s possible to have different groups meet with you at different stages of their writing process, based on their needs or interests.

In a group conference, the teacher typically meets with the group outside of class, and all members of the group have read one another’s work and taken notes prior to attending the conference. The conference then turns into a workshop session, where the group spends an allotted amount of time on each student’s writing. The writer should be encouraged to ask questions about the feedback she is receiving. This type of conference can also work in-class, but the instructor may have difficulty finding the time to participate equally in the groups and determining if each student came prepared with feedback.

A few tips for successful writing conferences:

  • Be very clear about what you want the student to have ready for the conference. Specify page length, if you want to see the thesis, etc. It can also be helpful to require students to come prepared with questions so the conference relates directly to their needs.
  • Consider finding a way to hold students accountable for attending the conference and coming prepared with quality writing. You can add points on your rubric for the conference, count the writing as a homework or quiz grade, collect the draft to be graded as part of a portfolio, among other approaches.
  • Specify how the writing should be brought to the conference. If students submit a draft beforehand, you can work review the documents together, or you can review the draft and prepare notes in advance of the conference.
  • Advise students to show up early and use a timer. Conferences almost always run late. Consider building in a few breaks in your schedule to account for this, too. Tell students beforehand that they will only lose time from their conference if they arrive late.
  • Prepare students for conferences by telling them what to expect. Make sure they know that they may have to engage in significant revision after the conference. Remind them that you cannot correct every issue in a short conference but that you are reacting as a reader as you experience their writing. These reminders temper expectations.

Whole-Class Workshopping

There are a variety of ways to engage students in revision that are less time-consuming than peer review and individual conferences. Sometimes, you may decide to let students work in class, and you come around and answer questions for them. Another approach is to conduct a whole-class workshop. With this strategy, you ask one or two students to bring a draft of their paper to class, and you pull it up via email or on the document camera. You then proceed to read through the draft with the class and offer feedback, asking other students to do the same. It’s helpful to remind them to be constructive and to also remind students that the feedback you’re providing on this student’s work should prompt revisions to others’ work. Here’s a whole-class workshop prompt that I used in a Developmental Writing class at a community college. The essay was a visual analysis essay:There are a variety of ways to engage students in revision that are less time-consuming than peer review and individual conferences. Sometimes, you may decide to let students work in class, and you come around and answer questions for them. Another approach is to conduct a whole-class workshop. With this strategy, ask one or two students to bring a draft of their paper to class, and pull it up digitally or on the document camera. Then, proceed to read through the draft with the class and offer feedback, asking other students to do the same. It’s helpful to remind them to be constructive and to also remind students that the feedback you’re providing on this student’s work should prompt revisions to others’ work. If you want to learn more about whole-class workshopping, here is a guide from the Dartmouth Institute for Writing & Rhetoric. Specifically take a look at the section called “Strategies for Success”.

Grading Revision

You may also be wondering how you should deal with grading when it comes to revision. There really is not one right way to handle tYou may also be wondering how you should deal with grading when it comes to revision. There really is not one right way to handle this; it’s largely based on your teaching style and time. It can be helpful to collect evidence of peer reviews, notes from conferences, early drafts, and look at these in conjunction with a final draft. Some instructors include “revision” as a category on rubrics and give students points based on the effort that went into the revision process. A time-saving technique could be to give feedback on drafts, but not assign a grade until the final essay is submitted (students could receive points just for submitting draft). Some teachers give separate grades to a draft and a final version and average them together, but this can be time-consuming. Be sure to make it clear to students that neither your feedback nor their peers’ feedback is able to account for every error. Sometimes, students think that they should receive 100% if they make all of your suggestions, but papers are rarely (if ever) perfect. Just a quick reminder of this can go a long way.


Bean, J. (2011). Engaging ideas: The professor’s guide to integrating writing, critical thinking,and active learning in the classroom. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Liu, J. & Hansen, J. (2002). Peer response in second language writing classrooms. Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press.

Nilson, L. (2003). Improving student peer feedback. College Teaching, 51(1), 34-38.

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