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‘Speed Dating’ Peer-Review Writing Workshops

We write about writing regularly at ProfHacker. If you’re new to ProfHacker, you absolutely should review Billie’s wonderful “Writer’s Bootcamp” series for tips about developing good personal writing habits and helping students with their writing. My students do quite a bit of writing in all of my classes—blog posts, writing exercises, digital projects, and more traditional papers. I aim to help my students develop their writing skills, both when composing their own texts and when critically analyzing the texts of others.

Because I hope to develop these skills, we do some writing in-class and my students workshop each other’s papers before turning them in for my evaluation. Like any classroom activity, however, workshops can grow stale if they always follow the same form. Throughout a given semester, then, I vary the format of our workshops to focus on certain skills or elements of writing.One of my favorite workshop formats is “introductions speed dating.” As the title should indicate, this workshop focuses on students’ introductions, helping them think about how their initial paragraph(s) draw readers into their arguments—or fail to do so.

The format is pretty simple, though it requires some preparation and classroom reorganization. Here’s what I do to set up the workshop:

  1. I ask students to bring a printed copy of their introductions to class. Because this exercise requires students to move frequently (more on that shortly), laptops can be unwieldy.
  2. I arrive at the classroom at least ten minutes prior to the start of class. I move the chairs (and, if the room has them, tables) so that there are two concentric rings of chairs. The chairs in the inner ring should face the chairs in the outer ring. When students arrive I make sure they sit in the rings.
  3. I also bring some music to class—a song that plays for approximately 4 minutes. I usually plug my iPhone into the classroom sound system (if there is one), but you could just as easily bring in a portable music player or some laptop speakers.
  4. I ask students to get out their printed introductions, one piece of paper, and a pen or pencil.

After this preparation, the workshop is pretty simple. When the music starts, facing pairs of students exchange introductions. They read each other’s paragraphs and then give their partners one specific piece of advice about how to improve their introductions. This advice is delivered aurally, and students write down their partner’s advice on their papers. Hopefully they can do this before the song ends (which doesn’t always happen in the first round but almost always happens within a few rounds). When the music stops, the students in the inner ring stand up and rotate to the next partner. I restart the music and they begin the process again. In 40 minutes students get feedback from 10 of their peers.

I like this format for several reasons:

  1. It’s focused. Students hone in on a single aspect of their papers, which makes the workshop less overwhelming, especially for less confident writers.
  2. It’s cumulative. At the end of the workshop, I tell students to look through the list of suggestions their classmates made and identify trends. “It you see three or four comments pertaining to one element of your introduction,” I tell them, “you know to work on that.” This addresses one of the most common problems with peer review workshops—uneven partnerships. In this format, students’ workshops aren’t sunk by one unhelpful partner.
  3. It changes the pace of the class. Students have fun with the music and the frequent movement. There are usually moments of laughter during the “shifts,” and students also seem to appreciate the “dating” motif.

How about you? Do you ask students to workshop their writing in class? How do you structure your workshops? Tell us about it in the comments.

[Creative Commons licensed photo by Flickr user Ryan Resella.]

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