Peer Review that Worked

This year I am challenged with teaching a new course: AP Capstone Seminar. It’s a course that really captures what teaching should be like: skill development such as reading and analyzing a variety of texts; inquiry based learning where students are guided to come up with their own research questions; group and self directed projects where students develop their collaborative skills; and, very high standards for presenting info in both written and oral assessments. This AP College Board course is unique in the sense that it doesn’t culminate in just a final exam or portfolio submission; it requires tasks to be submitted during the year, which account for 55% of the AP score. These tasks are essentially research papers and presentations.  

In accordance with College Board expectations, during the tasks teachers are limited in terms of how much support they can give students; in fact, there are very specific roles assigned to the classroom teacher:

Role of Teacher in Seminar
From the AP Seminar Course and Exam Description PDF

AP Seminar Course and Exam Description (PDF)

For a teacher who loves scaffolding research, first by helping students create inquiry questions on a topic, getting them to find and submit credible sources, conferencing their thesis statements and then their outlines, and finally, giving feedback on how to polish their papers before submitting, this whole hands off business was going to be hard for me. However, the strong foundation we established in the first quarter and then, surprisingly, my forced silence paid off.

Recently I facilitated a thesis workshop, mostly by sitting quietly and taking notes while students presented their research questions and thesis statements that they had posted in Google Classroom to their critiquing classmates. Sitting quietly in a class where I normally am very hands on was, surprisingly, a fascinating and joyful new experience for me. It seems that by having the rule that the teachers can’t help the students really forces them to step up their peer support.  It was incredible to see students often say the exact things that I was thinking about each thesis AND then going beyond anything I wanted to critique. Most incredible was watching students repeat things I had said to them when I had helped them with their first practice essay. Things like: “What are you trying to say there?” or, “I think you need to reconsider your word choice.” I think my favourite was, “Add more nuance to your position, avoid extremes, like ‘never’.”I thought my little teacher heart would burst. Furthermore, the students receiving the constructive criticism were receptive, even if the whole class was breaking apart their work. It was really heart-warming to see the class take responsibility for their own learning and of course, for each other’s learning.

I started to wonder why we don’t always teach like this? Of course, there are a couple of caveats. My seminar class consists of a really exceptional group of academically motivated students. Also, it’s a small class of only 10 students where workshops like this don’t take a whole week to get through. I can’t imagine how this same format would work in a class of 18-20+ kids though I’m sure it could be modified to work in small groups where students are given a grade for the quality of their criticism (as an extra motivator!). Finally, the most important element for this to be successful is establishing a strong foundation of skills that the students need.

When we did our first mock task one (lingo for practice research paper) I conferenced with every student about their thesis on numerous occasions to make sure they knew what a successful thesis entailed. Then I gave them a mini lesson on thesis statements, with a handout from Mrs. Nicole Harmer. Finally, a concise peer checklist was given to students during the thesis workshop so that students would know what criteria to look for.    

At the end of the day, it was encouraging and inspiring to see students really learning from each other and giving constructive criticism that was reflective of what we were learning.  Ultimately, it’s exciting to see students step up to the challenge of applying their learning to support their peers and together solve a real problem.


One thought on “Peer Review that Worked

  1. I think it all sums up to a form of collaborative learning, where peer to peer learning is a part. It is encouraging to know that people come up with well researched questions during inquiry based learning. It is more or less like a brainstorming session of sorts where everyone learns from each other. Thanks. Nice post.


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