In their article on the effect of instructor participation in online discussion boards, Margaret Mazzolini and Sarah Maddison asked if, “online instructors be encouraged to take a prominent ‘sage on the stage’ role, a more constructivist ‘guide on the side’ role, or an ultra-low profile as ‘the ghost in the wings’” when they are facilitating asynchronous discussion boards. Fifteen years later, we are still debating this same question.
In our role as deans, most of the questions we field from our online instructors about discussion board participation in pre-designed courses are focused on peer review activities. When discussion board prompts ask students to post their work and critique the work of their peers, instructors can be confused about their role. Since the activity is labeled as “peer review,” does that mean they, as instructors, should not participate, or should they participate in the same ways they do with other discussions? Is there some different way they should be engaging? Along with these questions, the most common concern we hear is that instructors don’t want to participate because they feel their presence might disrupt student conversations.
These questions and concerns assume that students already know how to participate and get the most out of peer review activities but that’s often not true. Just as faculty may be unclear as to their role, students can benefit from guidance in this area. Learning to provide feedback to their peers can help students develop strategies for their professional relationships and recognize the constructive value of feedback. For this reason, we offer the following suggestions for instructor involvement in peer review discussion board activities that will benefit both instructors and students.
Explain the value of the activity: Instructors should not assume that students see the value or understand the purpose of peer review activities. Instructors can jumpstart peer review discussions by explaining the benefits of the activity, including:
Peer review activities can help students learn how to read more carefully and strengthen their own writing by considering how others might respond to their own work.
Sharing their work can help students learn to write for broader audiences beyond their instructor.
Peer review can help students learn to critically analyze deliverables and figure out how to most effectively provide constructive feedback. This can also get students thinking about the differences between actionable and critical feedback versus judgmental comments.
Engaging in peer review helps students learn how to gather feedback from multiple people, evaluate the validity of the feedback, and take action to incorporate suggestions into their deliverable. This can situate the task as being similar to a small group project.
Show students how to participate: Instructors should not assume that students already know how to effectively participate in peer review activities. This can present an opportunity to teach students about the skills they need to participate.
After the first student posts his/her project for review, the instructor can model proper engagement by reviewing this first assignment and posting their feedback so students can see an example of what’s expected. The instructor can also annotate his/her feedback with comments for students, explaining why comments were made and why the instructor chose certain words or a certain approach to provide commentary.
Keep students on track: Instructors should take an active role by monitoring and reviewing student participation. If some students are not participating, reach out to them with words of encouragement. If student feedback is evaluative and not constructive, contact that student (corrections are better made in private), explain some strategies for effective peer review and ask them to try again.
Ensure students know what to do with the feedback they receive: Although the peer review activity itself has benefits (critical thinking, improving interpersonal skills, collaboration, etc.), students will have decisions to make regarding the feedback they receive. Instructors can use this as an opportunity to teach students how to evaluate feedback. Should students accept and incorporate all feedback they receive? How do they evaluate what should be used and what should be ignored? Evaluation of feedback can also provide an opportunity to teach effective engagement strategies, such as appropriate etiquette, the value of citations, the need for a professional communication tone, and the importance of respectful debate.
The bottom line is that peer review is hard work and it can be stressful for faculty and students. Just because students are asked to collaborate with each other, doesn’t mean there is no role for the instructor to play. This active learning strategy requires an active teaching strategy, and the more work instructors do to set expectations, guide interactions, and teach skills, the more students will benefit from the activity.