Peer Review Frequently Asked Questions
(and frequently leveled objections)

Caution: I generally write these comments during end-of-the-semester grading marathons, so they offer a picture of me at my snarkiest. I do this both for catharsis and because it is to my students' advantage to know how we professors are feeling when we are alone with your work and our red pens.

"What is peer review?"

Peer review is the process of submitting one's work to the judgment of another who is equally qualified.

We academics depend upon the practice of peer review. Many professions do. Students as well as graduates can take advantage of its many benefits. In my classes students peer review each other's written work according to these guidelines.

"Why do we have to peer review?"

First, peer review respects that a class is not just a collection of individuals interacting with an expert, but a team of students working together to grow together in learning an academic tradition. Peer review makes for better education.

Second, peer review helps widen a bottleneck in the educational process: the professor's time. Peer review allows you to get a rapid and descriptive assessment of your work, in time to apply its lessons to the next assignment.

Third, learning a subject involves judging arguments as well as crafting them. Peer review allows you to criticize arguments that may be weak or strong. That requires that you understand what makes them that way.

Fourth, peer review is training in leadership as well as training in discipleship.

Fifth, peer review gets you in the habit of having others read your work before you turn it in or publish it – whether you are in college, graduate school, or at work.

Overall, peer review improves your writing at a time when academic writing desperately needs improvement. Because so many grade schools have surrendered to low expectations, the quality of student writing in college is inexcusably poor. Dropouts from forty years ago write better than graduates do today. I refuse to give in to the temptation to respond to weak writing skills by making college more like high school, when most high schools are already little more than elementary schools with bigger parking lots.

This fellow academic, like many of us, has simply had it with poor scholarship:

I'm tired of wasting the students' time with what we call education and wasting my time (at a school whose total cost next year is set to be $34,579) with having to remediate things that any 9 year old could have learned. Like spelling. Or any 12 year old could have learned. Like how to write a complete sentence. Or any 15 year old could have learned. Like simple differences between tyranny, democracy, and monarchy. I have things I'd rather cover than the basics.

You are peer reviewing each other's work so that you don't waste my time and I don't waste yours. Editing makes you a better writer, and writing makes you a better editor, and both make you a better thinker. These assignments are opportunities to become more proficient at all three.

"It is disappointing to receive work back from you ungraded."

I know. I can see it in your faces. To put hours into a paper and get it back unmarked is unrewarding and impersonal. It feels like I have let you down. Good work is something you want a teacher to see, evaluate, and praise. There is nothing wrong with that desire.

When your work comes back unmarked, think about these things:

  • I have so many students and I assign so many exercises that to read them all would take my whole semester. It would take me away from seeing you, from keeping current in my field, from contributing to my field through writing, from being with my family ... from things that simply need to happen, not just for the other people in my life but also for you.
  • Your work does get noticed, by me as I screen papers to choose which to grade, and especially by the others in your small group who read everything closely. Your papers have more readers in my classes than they do in most classes.
  • If you are bursting with pride over something you have written, you can always make an appointment to have me read it for comment.
  • This is how we professors feel when we take the time to make comments on your papers and see some of you go right to the end, find your letter grade, and ignore the rest. (In fact, we feel worse, for we gained far less from grading your exercise than you have gained in working through it.)
  • You might have noticed a neurosis even more common in my profession than in the rest of the world: We're insecure. Academics are way too concerned about what other people think of us and our work. Having every scrap of work graded and handed back to you for two or three decades will do that. Well, consider this class an exercise in standing on your own once in a while and letting some of your work remain unassessed. After all, the point of college is learning, not showing. Ask this when I return one of your exercises unmarked: Was the exercise worth the trouble anyway? How did it help you you learn or grow?
  • A few of your classmates got grades. Truly, they already have their reward. But when your paper comes back unread, your Father who sees in secret will reward you (cf. Matt. 6:2-6).

"For us to do so much commenting and for you to do so little is exploitative, unfair, and a misuse of our tuition."

Nah. A misuse of tuition is spending the first five weeks of a semester messing around, the next three cramming through midterms, the next two sleeping it off, and the last five frantically trying to finish on time by pulling all-nighters and handing in lousy work. Unfairness is expecting a professor to become each student's personal editor rather than habitually giving and receiving help from neighbors. And exploitation of students is what happens at universities, not liberal arts colleges.

I find my students are learning more now that I have switched to this system than when mine were the only comments (which often went unread anyway). Moreover, I have put some of my newly free time into meeting personally with students. Finally, when I think more, read more in my field, and write more, I have much more to offer students than just remedial logic and proofreading experience. Compounded over the decades of an academic career, these priorities make an enormous difference in the quality of education I can provide. And that is why you are investing all that time and tuition in our school!

"The essay you ended up grading is the worst one I submitted all semester. What do I do?"

Cavalier reply: If you don't want to take chances, don't gamble in the first place! Do a good job on all of them and you won't have to worry.

Cynical reply: Why don't people mention it when the essay I end up grading is the best one they submitted all semester?

Considered reply: I doubt it. I lay a series of papers side by side and look over all of them before choosing one, and the one I choose is generally average or better. Besides, since you usually get three or more grades for written work, the effect will be less dramatic than you expect. In fact, only very rarely does such a misstep make a serious difference in one's overall grade. You might submit an extra credit assignment or two, just to minimize the risk. And if you really think my system would penalize you unfairly, you can resubmit the body of your work at the end of the semester for me to look at in case your work is on the borderline between grades.

"I'm embarrassed to let other students see my mistakes."

Did you think I didn't know that? Youth culture has made peer pressure more effective than authority pressure. That's too bad, not least because it makes many young people overlook sources of precious wisdom and make mistakes they will regret. Nevertheless, if I cannot shame you into taking your own written expression more seriously, then maybe a fellow student can.

"What do I do when my writer submits a poorly written or incomplete essay just to buy time, knowing that there is extra time to revise it?"

Give the essay the respect it deserves: As soon as you establish that it is not acceptable as collegiate level work, you mark it 'U' for unacceptable, note that it is incomplete or poorly researched, and hand it back with no further comment. You do not owe the writer the courtesy of a careful or complete reading, for he or she has not shown you the courtesy of such a writing. In fact, your writer has presumed upon your time and owes you an apology.

Then consider how foolish it was for your writer to do this. It cost him or her an opportunity for constructive criticism. That all but guarantees that the final version will be inferior to what it could have been. Moreover, if I see an incomplete assignment, I will treat it as late even if it is stamped and penalize it accordingly.

"What do I do when my reviewer returns my essay at the last minute, hardly reads it, or doesn't come to our peer review sessions?"

First of all, pray for him or her. This kind of behavior is not a promising sign. Second, remind him or her of the commitment all of us made at the beginning of the semester to act as a team rather than as a bunch of free agents. If the situation does not improve, tell me about it so I can penalize your negligent reviewer's participation grade, and either rely on the other student in your small group or find another to review your work.

If repeated attempts to improve the situation fail, let me know again and I will talk to the student.

"It is hard to understand what the writer is really saying when I am looking out for little mistakes."

Welcome to my world. Peer review shows you the impression poor writing has been making on your teachers. Poor writing also disrespects the reader on whose time and thought a writer is presuming. To read a stack of mediocre papers actually gives us fatigue. Remember this feeling next time you write!

This is why "form" and "content" cannot be easily separated. An argument that is grammatically clean, well documented, and clearly and intuitively organized is much more persuasive than one buried in spelling errors, grammatical errors, missing citations, improper paragraphing, and meandering logic.

To read well written, well argued papers is a blessing. I want your writing to bless your readers, not curse them.

"These grades are too low. I put a lot of effort into these essays!"

On the contrary, your essays are finally being graded appropriately. Furthermore, you finally know exactly what to do to improve. (The improvement I see over the semester proves it.)

By the way, grades do not traditionally award effort. They evaluate what effort produces. Pay close attention to the guidelines, and you will find that our efforts become more fruitful as the semester progresses.

If your grades are stubbornly low, I suggest you make an appointment to see me and find out why. Have your reader (or some other reader) edit your essays early, to give you time to make corrections and resubmit it by the due date. Finally, use the resources of the campus writing center.

"Do you realize how brutal it is to adjust the basic score downward just twice or three times?"

I sure do. I developed this grading system for precisely that effect (and I still find that students consistently overvalue their peers' weak arguments and sloppy style). I want to dissuade you from the conviction, widespread among students, that a professor should accept, let alone affirm, fundamentally flawed writing in college level courses.

Remember, it's nothing personal.

(I take that back. It is personal — a personal commitment to you and to my discipline that would rather improve your thinking and expression, or at least expose its weaknesses, than buy off your approval.)

"I feel bad marking an essay unacceptable or awarding a low grade."

You don't feel as bad as your professors feel doing it to lots of them!

Grades are meant to reflect the writer's work, not the reader's pity. In a math or science class, teachers do not overlook mistakes. In my classes I treat the Christian tradition at least as seriously as a math professor should treat trigonometry. I developed grading criteria to minimize our wiggle room as editors.

So show as much sympathy as you like, but do not let your sympathy compromise your integrity. If you don't mark the paper according to the guidelines, I do anyway — and I penalize your review grade too. If I don't, I show favoritism. Favoritism is corruption, and it hurts everyone in the class.

Remember, you are judging the work, not the author. Unless it was due to negligence, a poor or unacceptable paper implies no condemnation or shame on the writer. Perhaps it is a rush job. Perhaps the student has other priorities and doesn't care that much. Perhaps no one has ever held him or her accountable for following directions. Perhaps there are other issues you and I do not know about: family troubles, a failed romance, college loneliness, a spiritual crisis. It is not our place to compensate for those things with an inflated grade. Each of us is responsible for the quality of our work. This is college. "Real life" is right around the corner. Things are about to get less forgiving, not more.

If you can't tell whether the writer answers the question, then the writer probably doesn't. If the question is really so unclear, then the writer should have sought out clarification before submitting something posing as an answer. An IRS audit is a little too late for pleading, "I didn't understand how to use the form."

You can offer some happy thoughts if you like, picking the strongest points of the paper, but you don't need to do that, especially if your compliments would be forced. Remember, here affirmation is optional but fair criticism is required. Everyone can improve. While you may regret having to grade an assignment harshly, I am leaving you no choice. As an editor, you are learning something valuable: the skill of tactful and compassionate honesty. It will come in handy someday when you are a team member or a leader at work or at church.

And when you take another's criticism, remember how you feel now as you dish it out.

"Why is my work still unacceptable when I answer most of the question or use most of the sources?"

Imagine this were a class in the sciences. I would be assigning problem sets or lab exercises where you were to formulate and test a hypothesis by following a certain controlled procedure to gather certain data. Now let's say you didn't follow that procedure. You ignored data, failed to control variables, or pursued a different hypothesis than that of the study. What would that study be worth? Nothing.

So when I give you a question whose answer should draw upon a range of sources, what is your response worth if it fails to answer the question fully, answers a different question, or consults fewer sources? Garbage in, garbage out. Your time and efforts are wasted. An opportunity to discover something important is lost. Sloppy habits are reinforced that will still be hurting you after college.

"Why did you grade this essay so harshly? When I reviewed it, it looked fine to me."

One of the commonly cited differences between high school and college is that much high school work focuses on teaching facts, while college work focuses more on teaching analysis. This means many students are relatively new at scrutinizing others' arguments. Until now you have usually learned to memorize information and parrot it back on the tests. What passes for "response" is often just visceral reaction: "I like this idea" or "I dislike this idea." Naturally, these attitudes come across when you are asked to review each other's work: "You answered the question fully by appealing to course materials, therefore the essay is good," or "I liked what you had to say, therefore the essay is good." However, neither of these responses gauges whether the answer appealed appropriately or logically or insightfully to course materials, whether it depicted them accurately, or whether the writing is persuasively rather than just attractively reasoned. I am not asking for mere high school criteria here; I am demanding the real thing.

Of course, this should have been asked of you long before college. Better late than never!

"Doesn't it violate my privacy for another student to read my essay or find out my grade?"

If in-class oral presentations do not violate your privacy (a more accurate term is "confidentiality"), neither do written assignments you share with others.

I know sometimes peer review puts students in awkward positions. But this is a class, not a confessional. Athletic practices and games are public events too, and when players do poorly, everyone notices. Perhaps the convention of confidential written assignments is why mediocrity is more widespread in the classroom than on the playing field.

I realize the prospect of peer review may affect your candor in answering certain questions, but I believe the benefits exceed the costs. I want you to develop skills for writing both honestly and publicly. If you want to disclose confidential information in an essay, then either obtain your reader's promise of confidentiality, or see me ahead of time to bypass the peer review process for that essay.

As for grades, since my grade is not directly related to your reviewers', your final grade is still confidential.