Peer Review for Academic Writing

Story by

Bal Krishna Sharma




Applied Linguistics



I was the only first year master’s student in a graduate level “teaching second language writing” class in 2008 at a research university in the US. All other classmates were either second year MA students or doctoral students. That means my peers were more experienced than me in doing academic work in a US university. Our professor wanted us to write a “journal” for each weekly class. I thought I knew what “journal” exactly meant. Then, I questioned my previous understanding “how could a teacher ask us to write a journal for each class because a journal consists of several articles?” The professor also told us that the journal would be of a few pages. This again contradicted with what I previously understood by the word “journal” in the academic writing context. Instead of asking the professor or classmates, I quickly Googled for some guidelines and samples of “journals.” This led me to a vague and misunderstood idea of how to write the assignment, so I ended up writing summaries of all the journal articles that we read for class. I should have asked the professor what she wanted us to do. I also could have asked my classmates about how they were doing the assignment. I thought that was a too trivial thing to ask. As a result, by the time I found out what I was doing wrong, this was an exhausting experience.

At my previous university in Nepal, I never wrote journals or reflections. I used to take notes from lectures or course books, write essays and basically reproduce them in my exams. I rarely tried to connect the class readings with my experience. There were perhaps no or very few occasions when I expressed my perspective on the issues that I studied. This difference in academic cultures between my previous university in Nepal and my new university in the US resulted in challenges in academic writing for me in the initial days.

My writing professor would spend the first 20 minutes of the class for a peer review of our journals, which I later understood meant “reading responses.” I exchanged my journal with one or sometimes two of my classmates. This activity proved useful to me in two important ways. First, I got feedback on my writing on several aspects such as organization, coherence, cohesion and arguments. Second, I could read and notice how my classmates, who were more experienced than me, would write their journals. I also learned to relate the class reading with my experience of learning to write. Another pair of eyes was very useful in finding and fixing small but important language and stylistic errors which I did not notice.

The writing skills that I learned as a graduate student also translated into teaching skills when I started teaching an academic writing course for international graduate students after some time. The class was very interdisciplinary consisting students from humanities, social sciences, engineering, mathematics and science. Before the students submitted a final version of any major writing assignment, I asked them to work in pairs, exchanging and reviewing each other’s writing. I prepared detailed peer review guidelines and a review sheet that consisted of such small details as ‘finding a thesis statement and underling it’, ‘commenting on if each paragraph is well-connected with the preceding and the following ones’, ‘writing what was done well in the essay’, ‘commenting on what needs to be improved’ and ‘ending with positive remarks’. My students not only enjoyed the activity but reported in the end-of-semester evaluation that it significantly helped them improve their writing.

When international students come to the academic contexts where teaching and learning are perceived and conducted differently than in their previous universities, it is important to socialize into the new academic context. In addition, I encourage international students not to consider previous academic knowledge always as a problem but as a resource. Students can see ways regarding how their previous learning positively helps them to enhance their academic transition in the new context. I now write not only “journals” but also “journal articles”, and I get my drafts peer reviewed first either by my professors or my classmates or by a friend from a different university or by a professor from another institution. Eventually, refereed journal articles do not get published without a blind-fold peer review.

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