Peer-feedback “The Believing Game” (Peter Elbow)

Peer-feedback and student writing. Something that I have been trying to improve for a decade!  In my last blog post I wrote about my recent experience using Google Forms to improve peer-feedback during oral presentations.  I was prompted to give Google Forms a go because I have recently been involved with my School Division’s Innovation Initiative.  I was pleased with the results, and this success gave me the energy (it is the end of May) and encouragement to reconsider how I use peer-feedback with student writing.

I’m sure most people reading this post are aware of the common trappings related to peer-feedback on student writing: over-emphasis on editing concerns, apathetic involvement and limited constructive criticism (feedback that actually improves the quality of the ideas and the way they are presented).   I didn’t want to go “Google Forms” happy, so I didn’t want to use that medium again (and I am a firm believer in the idea that change for change’s sake is not innovation–thanks George!)  Well, I found myself in a bit of a conundrum.  Ultimately, I decided to put my ITLL money where my mouth is.  I began to consider my challenges with peer-feedback from an Innovator’s Mindset:The belief that abilities, intelligence and talents are Developed, leading to the creation of Better ideas.”

I wanted to use peer-feedback to improve not just how the students communicated their ideas, but also–and more significantly–the quality of their ideas.  I wanted Better thinking, Better ideas!!!  Here’s how it went…


Context: Grade 10 English.  After reading Act 2 of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the students were assigned to write a paragraph response, which was reviewed during a peer-feedback workshop.  This is a picture of the scene!  Look at all that enthusiasm.


They dutifully went through a typical peer-feedback process.  The results: abysmal.  Well, that’s not entirely true.  The revised responses did show improvement in terms of structure.  The students needed to remember to state their argument clearly, to support their ideas with quotations and to edit for mechanics–the typical peer-feedback process did improve these areas, though incorporating evidence and explaining its significance was still very weak!  What didn’t improve at all, however, was the quality of their ideas or the depth at which they explored those ideas.  Poor students; what a waste of their time (empathy?).  The level of insight remains inadequate and the lack of improvement is problematic (problem finder?).    Thought, thought!! Ideas, ideas!! This is the stuff that matters (observant? reflective?). But…

How can I use peer-feedback to improve ideas and thinking?

I did a little searching on-line and stumbled across the work of Peter Elbow.  I saw Oxford University Press’s tag line for Elbow’s book which refers to him as a “well-known advocate of innovative teaching methods,” and decided that I should check him out (much of his work is available on-line).  Little did I know that the book being referred to was published in 1973.   Well, new isn’t always better and innovation is not a synonym for technology (reflective?). Let’s see what he has to say.

Though I certainly don’t agree with all of what Elbow posits, he does have this neat idea: “The Believing Game”.  I read through his and related materials and decided to try to incorporate some of his ideas in my next peer-feedback workshop session.  I created this handout:

Believing and Doubting Handout 1

Snippets from it below.

Believing and Doubting Handout

After reading, playing around in and discussing Act 3, I assigned them another paragraph and told them we would have another peer-feedback workshop, but that this time we were going to try something different!  After they completed drafts, we went through the Elbow handout and practiced his concept using a sample paragraph. For this practice activity, they had to create a simple 1/2 page of jot notes under the following headings: Mirror, Believing, Doubting.  I created a more formal handout to use when working with a peer’s paper.  Click on this handout link to see. Believing and Doubting Handout 2.

Believing and Doubting Handout2

I had no idea if this idea was going to work (risk taking?) but the reflection comments about how their understanding of the topic in the sample exercise deepened (albeit not a very sophisticated idea) certainly were promising.


The next day, we tried the same activity using their Midsummer Response Paragraphs.  This was a much more difficult task.  They found that in order to actually complete the ‘believing and doubting’ sections, they had to return to the text, they had to argue with ideas of their own, they had to explain why they disagreed, they had to suggest what evidence would be better or add-on when they were believing etc..  Hard work.  They were reluctant.  But, during a concluding reflection discussion, many suggested that the process helped them better understand the play and some of the crazy ideas its exploring.  They (depending on what prompt they were working with) had a better understanding of the differences and similarities between the Dionysian-Forest and Apollonian-Athens, they had a deeper understanding of Bottom’s theatrical spirit, or they could more clearly articulate the multiple metaphorical meanings of the “love-juice”.

I recorded their conversations and wanted to post them, but for some reason they won’t show up!!!  I also asked students to record a 10 second clip after their revisions were complete to share their thoughts about the revision process and send it to me via text (networking?). Many of them did this, but again, I can’t post the videos!!!??? Not an ideal system anyway.  I’ll look into it and edit when I figure it out!

Final Thoughts: In short, this peer-review activity, though not high-tech, certainly was guided by Couros’s Innovator’s Mindset.