Resource Database: Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences

Title Peer Writing Groups in Geographical Education
Originator Iain Hay1 and Edward J. Delaney2
Department 1School of Geography, Population and Environmental Management, The Flinders University of South Australia, GPO Box 2100, Adelaide, SA 5001, AUSTRALIA
2Department of Geography, Earth Science, Conservation and Planning, Northern Michigan University, Marquette, MI 49855-5342, USA.
Tel. +61-8-8201-2386 and +1-906-277-2500
Fax +61-8-8201-3521 and +1-906-227-1621
Email iain.hay@flinders.edu.au and edelaney@nmu.edu

The ability to communicate effectively is acknowledged by employers to be a valuable attribute of a university graduate. That ability is also vital in fulfilling geography discipline objectives of mutual understanding and emancipation. In this project, writing groups were used in geography departments in Australia and the USA as a means of improving student skills in written communications as well as to stimulate positive attitudes to writing, intellectual growth, and rhetorical skills. From the point of view of teachers, writing groups were employed to fulfil pedagogic objectives and to free up time for instructional improvements and other academic business.

A writing group is an assembly of people for sharing and improving writing. They are benign environments in which author-students share ideas and receive guidance on the writing process from peers before submitting a paper for evaluation.

Writing groups are argued to have several benefits including:

Students were introduced to the idea and benefits of writing groups and were required to provide legible copies of completed, draft essays to three peers about one week before a scheduled tutorial class. Before distributing those essays however, each student was asked to review their own essay according to checklists of essay marking criteria with which they had been provided at the beginning of the teaching semester. This process of self-review was intended to encourage thoughtful consideration of the components of a good essay. In the week or so before the tutorial, peer reviewers were required to prepare one-page critiques of their colleagues' work. Reviews were written in terms of the essay marking criteria provided. At the tutorial meeting, class members were given the opportunity to read and discuss reviews in small group. Authors were then expected to revise their papers in the light of peer comments.

In a competitive system of assessment, students tend to hide their work from one another and are reluctant to share their knowledge and expertise. In most cases, each student knows or believes s/he may be competing against others for a limited pool of passing grades. For peer writing groups to be effective then, this concern about grades needs to be allayed. That can be achieved through the use of criterion-referenced assessment or by being prepared to award large proportions of high grades (if warranted).

In this project, student views on writing groups were solicited. Overall, the exercise was well regarded and considered helpful. Ninety percent of the students surveyed thought writing groups should continue to be used. There were some concerns however. A small number of students noted that writing group lulled them into a false sense of security. For example: "The comments I received from the group suggested that I had answered the question. This was contrary to the comments by the tutor." In some cases students were a little 'faint-hearted' in their criticisms of peers. Perhaps surprisingly, this was very poorly regarded by most students who actually wanted thorough and, if necessary, blunt reviews!

Overall, a carefully administered writing group exercise is a useful strategy to develop student skills in written communication. By bringing to the attention of student writers the ways in which their work is interpreted (or misinterpreted), writing groups emphasise the importance of the audience to the writing process. That is a critical step in cultivating the development of good communication skills.

Relevant References:

Keywords:

Assessment
Collaborative work
Communication
Essay writing
Peer assessment
Peer review
Writing groups


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Page created 14 January 1998
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