Fantasy and science fiction: peer feedback

My course of Fantasy and science fiction is ending this weekend and it is time to analyze my experiences. I had to work very hard during these eight weeks. All the novels were new to me (never read those books in English) and I work slowly when I use English. Now I am tired and happy. The course worked well: our teacher Eric Rabkin is brilliant and the student community learned to support each others. This time I will handle the feedback I got from my peers. How did it function as a source of learning?

The feedback was organized so that everybody got feedback from four randomized, anonymous peers every week (after sending the feedback to four others). Peer feedback was guided to handle two aspects in the following way:

FORM here refers to matters of grammar, usage, and structure. Are the sentences grammatically correct? Are the words properly used? Is the exposition and argument laid out clearly? An ideal response would note one aspect of Form that the writer does well and would profit by continuing and one aspect of Form that the writer would profit by improving in ways you make clear.

CONTENT here refers to matters of insight, argument, and example. Does the essay show a deep understanding of some aspect of the work or of a pattern that one can see in the work? Does the argument make sense, feel persuasive, and reveal the significance of the insight or insights? Are there concrete details from the text that support the argument and that we come to understand more powerfully because of the argument? An ideal response would note one aspect of Content that the writer does well and would profit by continuing and one aspect of Content that the writer would profit by improving in ways you make clear.

I was used to use peer feedback in my work as a teacher educator. Peer learning was a normal part of our work and useful practice to our students, who were becoming teachers. It was not a big step to me to use peer feedback and I did not miss direct assessment from the professor.  His feedback was in the videos. My problem was to believe too much on my ability to write and think in these literature studies. I had to use my knowledge of the human mind (psychology and education). I had used English language in my own studies, reading books, writing some articles, but during last years only blogging and twittering.  I was not sure if it is wise to study literature in English, but I decided to try what happens.

In the first diagram you can see our program and my grades (form, content +the sum) and the number of peers, from which I got feedback. Minimum is two and maximum could have been 6. My best is 4 and I agree with that.

It was very important to receive straight and honest feedback at the beginning of the course. The grade (number) is only a short way to describe the level; the qualitative feedback showed me my typical mistakes and weakness. All the four peers told that in my first essay:

“The title was not explored by the writer. The essay is basically a summary of the novel and In my opinion, the ideas are not linked. This theme is very interesting and could be better explored.”

” the exposition and argument are not clear. The writer didn’t explore the subject proposed. There is no thesis or development of ideas. There is no progression, only the gathering of information and facts presented in a descriptive manner.”

I had to agree with their assessment after re-reading my essay in a critical mind. This was perhaps the most important moment of my studies. I am grateful for the long feedback and good advices about what I should do better.

I concentrated better on my second week and begin to receive more acceptable notes. Nobody suspected me about plagiarism (the discussion in the forums was plenty). I had mistakes enough and I original themes almost every time. I was proud to hear that

“Your thesis was different, and new, so you get points for originality.”

“Gosh, now I’ll always think of Poe’s characters while reading yet another rant on the forum. Possibly imagining fellow students chasing each other with an ax. An improvement!”

“The essay is interesting and ‘thought-provoking’.”

My ‘favorite weakness’, lack of clarity and logic, was not easy to take away and leave. Sometimes I succeeded in the form and forgot the content, and sometimes on the contrary. Comments like these followed me up to the end:

“The first paragraph and the final sentence of the essay are completely unnecessary; the rest of it is well expressed.”

“Your two questions in the intro are excellent questions, either one of which would have resulted in a full essay. Your essay, though, did not fully examine either of these questions”

“The argument is not very clear Please stick to one argument and explore it completely.”

I did not know how difficult it is to write a coherent essay with 320 words. Now I am more aware of my weaknesses in thinking and writing. These peer assessments were given anonymously and it made possible the honest speech. My learning curve is smooth as the following diagram proves.

I received 30 assessments and everyone was written seriously and honestly. It was easy to agree with the feedback. My language was assessed bipolar from poor to good without any mistakes. The students came from different cultures and many had English as Second Language (ESL), so the ability to assess grammar must differ. It was fine to receive advices from experts, an example here.

“Overall a good effort. ‘An utopia’ should be ‘a utopia’. The rule is that if a noun begins with a consonant sound you precede it with ‘a’. Utopia begins with the consonant sound ‘Y’ (as in youth’) and not the vowel sound of ‘Y’ as in ‘any’; so the phrase should be ‘a utopia’.  Also, watch your lack of the word ‘the’. For example ‘women in Herland’ should be ‘the women’, ‘comprehend all issues’ should be ‘comprehend all the issues’, ‘overcome obstacles’ should be ‘overcome the obstacles’ and ‘at least two of three’ should be ‘at least two of the three’. Comma placement in this sentence, ‘the male visitors had an opportunity to learn, too, and their minds etc…’ should be ‘the male visitors had an opportunity to learn too, and their minds etc…’ In general, these were minor issues.” Thanks for teaching me.

I got a positive  experience about peer learning during this course; it really worked to me. Perhaps I did easy mistakes to correct in my language and my writing as well. Perhaps the best literature students did not receive relevant comments, I don’t know. Some were disappointed which can be seen in the discussion forums.  My background as a teacher,  a feedback expert, surely helped me. I considered peer feedback as a normal behavior and an excellent source of learning. I am happy about participating this course and I’ll blog more about other aspects of my learning. Thanks to you all!