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Reciprocal critiquing exercise for tutorials

This is my description of an exercise I feel is good, and have run many times with level 3 tutorial groups here at Glasgow, in Psychology, as have a least a couple of other tutors. It goes particularly well with supporting critical reviews. This document is written as if I were talking to tutors, but there is no reason why students should not organise and do this themselves. See also here.

There are also some studies of this: see here and a talk: abstract, slides, handout.

It requires making each student come with a piece of old work (e.g. an essay) and have students critique each others' work. Afterwards (not before!) they say how valuable it was for at least these reasons:

Pedagogic rationale

Brief overview

Everyone produces something from their files e.g. their last submitted piece of work; two others get to read and comment on it; the rules are: always say what is best and worst about it (not just one or the other), minimum is a comment on it overall, better is a separate best and worst for each section, better still is best/worst with respect to each of the assessment criteria for that piece of work, a useful extension is to suggest a mark/grade for the work.

One version of instructions for participants is here.
You can download (and edit) a prompt sheet here.

Reading two pieces each is probably as much work as is both useful and not too onerous.

More practical detail

Variations, issues

Tutor join in critiquing?

One way to do it is for the tutor to join in completely, and contribute a piece of work for critiquing. This is good for the tutor's soul, particularly the first time of running the exercise, but the difficulty is finding a piece of writing the students can and will comment on usefully. If the tutor has recently written a handout or notice for students, this might be a good choice.

Another approach for tutors nervous in another way, is for them to try and read and produce comments on all the pieces of work. This soothes a nervous fear that no comments will be produced, but gives the tutor much more work than the others. Without this, the exercise can scale over quite a range of different group sizes.

The lazy and disorganised, but professional-seeming, tutor will take a copy of all the pieces, but only read a few depending on whim and time.

Best and worst

I like asking for comments on both the best and worst aspects as it goes a long way to producing balanced comments, and avoiding both students who think "critiquing" means being negative, and those who feel that politeness means they should only be positive. You can usually tell an overall assessment without it being stated from the relative strength of the best and the worst comment produced. And both of course are useful: negative comments tell you what needs changing, positive comments tell you what to retain and repeat. You could call them "what to keep and what to change" instead of best and worst.

An alternative to this is to ask for stop/start/continue comments:

Note that "best/worst" is asking for judgements on what was written, while "stop/start/continue" is asking for specifications for what should change i.e. for constructive comments only. Constructive comments are always more useful to the recipient, but not always possible to give. We can always say whether we are unhappy, almost always where in the writing or what is making us unhappy, usually why it makes us unhappy, but only sometimes what should be done to change it.

More elaborate specifications for writing feedback can be found here. However these are not likely to be appropriate for a simple introductory exercise like the above.

Giving the feedback face to face

The first time this is done, it is best to deliver the feedback face to face in a group, not privately; even though they will probably have written it out on the comment sheets. There are multiple advantages of this:

Giving marks/grades

A variation is to require students also to propose a mark or grade for the piece of work they are commenting on. This is mainly of benefit to the critic. Although students find it stressful to mark each others' work, it is in fact very useful as a step towards understanding and exercising standards.

Giving feedback on spelling etc.

It is worth including feedback on spelling and language. It is what I always do for colleagues, and there's no other provision for this low level feedback for students. This is best done by marking a copy of the essay, so paper copies may be best for this.

Time management consequences

Could end with punching home the time management message: Investigations have suggested that the most crucial failing in students' time management is grasping the most basic idea of working back from the deadline to the implied time needed for component actions. I.e. students have to grasp and act on two notions:

"The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one."
Mark Twain

Further exercises

If you want to follow up this exercise with more, then the next steps might be:

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