Best practices for encouraging effective commenting by students

Peer-to-peer feedback decenters the classroom; enables critical writing, reading, and conversational skills; and demonstrates the extent to which all writing is collaborative. Making students accountable for the feedback they give and the work they present for feedback encourages best practices for student comments. Faculty may also model successful response to drafts, which includes praise for strengths and targeted suggestions to improve weaknesses. And yet, even in the most well organized writing studio students may provide generic feedback because accountability and assessment measures may limit creativity. Furthermore, many students do not provide constructive feedback to one another because they do not want to hurt each other's feelings, or they have never been taught how to give creative feedback.

There are many digital tools and classroom practices that encourage effective commenting between students. Since digital feedback tools encompass an array of genres, students are empowered to provide more creative feedback.

  • Advocates of Blog posts and thread commentary argue the relative anonymity provided by the comment section, as well as the freedom to think/write through responses not afforded in face-to-face sessions, encourages effective commenting.
  • Audio commentary utilizing tools such as Audacity or iTalk Recorder has worked well for instructors and can work just as well peer-to-peer. Students can have a conversation about each other's work without the anxiety many novice writers may experience in the classroom.
  • Through synchronous collaborative tools such a Google Docs, or Mixedink students can comment in real time on drafts at the sentence level.
  • Wikis. Whether a class generates its own wiki or works on a Wikipedia project, wikis encourage best practices in commentary. Though comments responding to draft entries are asynchronous, the success of any entry depends on its networked relation to other entries. That is to say, because wiki entries are densely hyperlinked and sensitive to user feedback, writers and respondents have to work together to produce effect content.

Bauer, Sarah. "When I Stopped Commenting on Their Papers: Accommodating the Needs of Student Writers with Audio Comments." English Journal 101.2 (2011): 64-67.

Though she describes her experiences as an instructor providing audio feedback to students, this model could be easily implemented to encourage best comment practices in a peer-to-peer setting. Audio feedback is an increasingly popular platform through which faculty to respond to student work. Bauer engages students in best comment practices before providing feedback on drafts by asking them what specific feedback they want form her, so her audio feedback enters into an already established conversation.

Further resources for audio commentary:

Brodhal, Cornelia, et. al. "Collaborative Writing with Web 2.0 Technologies: Educations with Student's Perceptions." Journal of Information Technology Education: Innovations in Practice 10 (2011): 73-103.

This study presents findings on the student perceptions of collaborative writing technology such as Google Docs and Ether Pad. The study confirmed the researchers' hypothesis: "students with high digital competence and a positive attitude toward digital tools are more positive than average" (73). The synchronous comments enabled by Google Docs and Ether Pad encourages best practices in student commenting according to the authors' findings.

Comment Design: Considerations, Best Practices, and Examples. Design matters since visibility is a key to best practices in multimodal analytic commenting. This website provides tips for successful "comment styling" such as deciding on a "threaded or flat view," ways to emphasize author comments," why/how to include trackbacks," and "enabling gravatars."

CommentPress. CommentPress is an open source theme and plugin for the WordPress blogging engine that allows readers to comment paragraph-by-paragraph, line-by-line or block-by-block in the margins of a text. Annotate, gloss, workshop, debate: with CommentPress you can do all of these things on a finer-grained level, turning a document into a conversation. It can be applied to a fixed document (paper/essay/book etc.) or to a running blog. Kathleen Fitzpatrick's Planned Obsolescence manuscript. Note that you shouldn't apply CommentPress on a site that you're already running. It's probably best to install it in a devoted subdomain.

iPeer. "iPeer - a web-based platform/database independent application (written in PHP) to develop and deliver peer evaluations, review and release student comments, build rubrics and progress report forms online, configure email notifications."

Team Based Learning Collaborative. Alternative to more loosely conducted group activity, Team Based Learning distributes students into groups according their skill sets; assures student readiness through assigned readings, followed first by an individual quiz and, second, by a group quiz that students complete collaboratively; and has students report task outcomes to the entire class after "inter-team" discussion/consensus. The process models best practices for student feedback because students have to collaborate on the interpretation of the task assignment and material interpretation to arrive at a consensus. Students provide structured feedback to team members throughout the semester. As this video from University of Texas, Austin demonstrates, students and faculty who practice TBL attest to its success.

Yang, C. and Y.-S. Chang. Assessing the Effects of Interactive Blogging on Student Attitudes Towards Peer Interaction, Learning Motivation, and Academic Achievements. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning 29 (2012): 126-135.

Advocates of Blogs in the classroom argue the post and comment thread response organization of the tool encourages students a greater majority of students to participate in online discussion grounded more fully textual analysis.