Peer Coaching Builds Community And Improves Writing Skills In Online Courses
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How Peer Coaching Helps To Build Community And Improve Writing Skills In Online Courses

Writing assignments handled in the traditional way go like this: the instructor helps the student select the topic, the student submits the completed paper, and the instructor comments on and grades the paper. Most students look at the comments and grade for a just few moments and that ends the learning process. Research shows that minimal learning occurs this way.

In my experience, the quality of  research papers increases dramatically by introducing  peer coaching, a process by which students are paired  to coach, encourage, and support each other. Both the student writing the paper and peer coach are graded on their participation.

The Practice Of Revision

The primary purpose of peer coaching is to teach students to continually revise their writing. Revision literally means to “see again”. I encourage students to look at their work from a fresh, critical perspective and rethink their papers. This ongoing process enables them to reconsider their arguments, review their evidence, polish their presentation, and refresh lackluster style.

Revision is much more than fixing the commas and spelling; it provides multiple opportunities to rework, rewrite, and perfect. I love to share with students that Hemingway rewrote the last page of A Farewell to Arms 39 times.

Students learn to appreciate the value of refining their written work through the process of peer assessment and revision. In addition to improving writing, it encourages them to support and empower each other. This has proven to be a powerful tool in promoting community and communication throughout the course. Here’s how it works:

Step 1. The student produces an initial draft.

The instructor first helps the student identify a manageable topic and provides both student and peer coach (another student in the class) with the assessment rubrics.

Step 2. Student sends initial draft to the peer coach.

The student submits their first draft to the peer coach, rather than the instructor. The peer coach can help the student by brainstorming the content, providing honest feedback, and assessing the organization of the first draft. Feedback needs to be meaningful and go well beyond “You did a nice job”.

The peer coach gives the student recommended revisions based upon a rubric. The coach also sends a copy to the instructor for a grade on the coaching effort.

Step 3. Student revises the initial draft based upon the peer coach’s suggestions.

The student author then revises the paper based upon the peer coach’s recommendations. I recommend that students read the second draft out loud. This is an easy way to see if the words flow smoothly.

Step 4. Student sends the second draft to the instructor.

The second draft is then submitted with the peer assessment to the online instructor, who attaches suggestions and comments and then returns it to the student without a final grade. I indicate to the student what my initial evaluation or grade would be in order to give them an idea of how much work they need to do in their final revision.

Step 5. Student produces the final draft.

The student then produces the final draft, which is submitted for a grade. The peer coach also receives a grade for the quality of their assessment. This is more work than students are used to, but demonstrates the value of the revision process as a way to dramatically improve writing.

Step 6. Evaluation and final grade by the instructor.

More comments are provided on the final paper. A critical ingredient is providing students with the feedback necessary to enable them to improve their work.

Cementing Good Writing Skills

The student gets much more than a grade with this process. He or she learns the value of refining and revising their written work through the process of peer assessment and revision. I encourage students to consider a similar process for future writing assignments. They can ask a trusted friend or colleague to read their work and give them candid feedback.

Peer coaching is a great opportunity to develop the online course community and encourage collaborative learning. It takes the entire semester to fully implement the approach due to the amount of time needed for the back and forth between the instructor, the student writing the paper, and the peer coach. I also assign a high point value to the exercise -as high as 20 to 30 percent of the course grade- to stress the significance of the assignment.

Resources For Educators

The first time I used this approach was for research papers in the online environment of a very urban campus, New Jersey City University, where it significantly improved the writing skills of a very diverse student body hailing from almost every corner of the planet. I found that it worked equally as well when used in 100 and 200 level courses at community colleges with a more homogeneous student body. I have since routinely used this approach with a variety of online institutions, including teaching deployed soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan for American Military University.

Peer coaching is a great example of learner-centric teaching and collaborative learning, and improves the community experience, especially in the online course environment.

Here is a list of web resources that I found to be useful for teaching students to improve their writing through peer coaching:

  1. Purdue’s Open Writing Laboratory for APA (American Psychological Association) formatting and style guide.
  2. The Son of Citation Machine helps students properly cite references, and will be a valuable resource long after the course concludes.
  3. Lycoming College’s Plagiarism Goblin Game. It provides a fun interactive way to become aware of plagiarism and how to avoid it.
  4. The instructor can use Turnitin.com or simply copy and paste suspicious writing portions into Google for some additional quality assurance.
  5. Improve your writing with Peer Coaching
  6. Revising Your Paper” University of Washington
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