Dr. Cox’s 3 Rules For Peer Criticism

Peer criticism is unquestionably important for learning, especially in writing. It’s also unquestionably tricky to implement effectively. To help out, in this post I offer three simple rules you can use to guide a peer criticism session.

Writing is collaborative.
Image by Helloquence via StockSnap

There is a lot against us in the traditional classroom when we try to implement peer criticism. There are too many students (a good critique group should never exceed about ten people, and even that’s pushing it). There is little intrinsic motivation among students, who are often there for a grade more than anything else. Students are often poorly trained in peer criticism. They also often have bad experiences in the past, which will tend to dispose them poorly to the activity. And I’m sure you have your own experiences that tell you it’s hard to do well.

But peer criticism is a very efficient teacher when done well. Students learn from having a sample audience for their own work, and they learn just as much from critiquing other students’ work. They learn to think like not only the author, but the audience. They learn any number of other things from the activity too, like resilience, teamwork, etc.

I’ve been doing peer criticism outside the classroom on and off for over twenty years (yes, I started when I was approximately 12). It’s invigorating and exhilarating in ways that never really wear off. Peer criticism done well is the very best of learning. But to do it well requires rules that everyone abides by, so that feelings don’t get trampled, order is maintained, and the whole thing runs smoothly.

It’s tempting, mind you, to draft up a long list of rules to cover every occasion. I’ve done that before. You can fill up pages with rules and procedures, even when you’re being rather concise.

But instead of filling pages with rules and trying to tackle “it’s good” head on, I offer instead three simple rules, honed over many years. These rules are in order of importance:

  1. Be specific
  2. Be honest
  3. Be tactful

Yes, it really is that simple. Let’s go over how these rules work.

Be Specific

Specificity, aside from being somewhat hard to pronounce, is the most important part of effective critique. The author has no ability to fix something based on a vague hunch; they must know where in the text to focus their attention in revision. Moreover, being specific teaches the person giving critique to make solid, concrete arguments and requires them to articulate what they’re perceiving in a text.

Be Honest

Most people would put this one first. However, I think being specific actually, in a way, forces honesty. This rule is more to prevent people from withholding a comment for fear that it might hurt someone’s feelings. I sometimes tell my students that peer criticism can function something like a vaccine–by testing the text out on a small audience that is trusted and invested in the author’s success, it trains the author to present the text to a larger, potentially more hostile audience. But it only works if the sample audience is honest about their responses. Nothing can be withheld, and anything can be said (as long as it’s said specifically; see above).

Be Tactful

Originally, I would have worded this as “Be polite.” But politeness to many people has disingenuous connotations, the notion of hiding how one really feels, or using “little white lies.” That, of course, violates the previous two rules. But something has to be said about caring for the feelings of the author being critiqued, or else the whole exercise becomes worthless. After all, an author who feels attacked will ignore everything said in the session, no matter how valid the criticism may be. Worse, an author who feels attacked may abandon seeking out beta audiences entirely–and then the author is permanently crippled.

So, instead, we have “be tactful,” a deliberate choice of words not only meaning to be considerate, but also to be strategic (as in “tactics”). In this way, we think about the rhetoric of peer critique: we consider how we can phrase our specific, honest criticisms in ways that will reach their target audience effectively and be useful in revision. This can include starting with a positive comment, or making sure to always offer a helpful specific suggestion alongside a complaint.

Time to do some critique!
Image by Brodie Vissers via StockSnap

So, there you have it: Dr. Cox’s 3 Rules For Peer Criticism.

These aren’t magical (well, not terribly so, at least); they won’t instantly make your class’s peer criticism work perfectly. Peer criticism is a skill that must be developed with practice and care. However, these rules are easy enough to memorize quickly and remind students of regularly, so they should help lubricate and facilitate effective peer criticism in the classroom and out.

Feel free to use these rules as much as you like!

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