Oral and written peer feedback

This post is part of my ongoing efforts to develop a research project focusing on the Arts One program–a team-taught, interdisciplinary program for first-year students in the Faculty of Arts at the University of British Columbia. As noted in some earlier posts, one of the things that stands out about Arts One is what we call “tutorials,” which are weekly meetings of four students plus the professor in which all read and comment on each others’ essays (students write approximately one essay every two weeks). Thus, peer feedback on essays is an integral part of this course, occurring as a regular part of the course meeting time, every week.

In a recent survey of Arts One Alumni (see my post summarizing the results), students cited tutorials as one of the things that helped them improve their writing the most, and as one of the most important aspects of the program. In that earlier post I speculated on what might be so valuable about these tutorials, such as the frequency of providing and getting peer feedback (giving feedback every week, getting feedback on your own paper every two weeks), the fact that professors are there in the meetings with students to give their comments too and comment on the students’ comments, the fact that students revisit their work in an intensive way after it’s written, that they may feel pressure to make the work better before submitting it because they know they’ll have to present and defend it with their peers, etc. That last point is perhaps made even more important when you consider that the students get to know each other quite well, meeting every week for at least one term (the course is two terms, or one year long, but some of us switch students into different tutorial groups halfway through so they get the experience of reading other students’ papers too).

One thing I didn’t consider before, but am thinking about more now, is whether the fact that the feedback is done mostly, if not exclusively, orally and synchronously (and face-to-face) rather than through writing and asynchronously, makes a difference.

This is interesting to me for several reasons:

1. In Arts One tutorials, I have in the past just asked students to comment orally on each others’ work, and for the student being evaluated to take notes. But lately I’ve been asking students to also trade written comments as well as discuss them orally in tutorial. It’s too hard for students to miss something while they’re taking notes on someone else’s comments, and it’s hard to take notes as well as listen carefully at the same time. Having written comments would also give students a written record of what others have said, and I have then asked them to comment at various points in the year on how they are addressing the comments they’ve been receiving. So in Arts One, I ask for both oral and written comments. Of course, in Arts One I’m also in the room while the oral comments are being given and discussed.

2. In Philosophy courses, I’ve done things in different ways. Sometimes I just ask students to give written comments on essays, sometimes just oral in a class meeting, and sometimes both. I’m not sure which is most effective.

My questions:

a. Could it be that giving face-to-face, oral comments and having a chance to discuss these together allows students to better use the feedback in some way than if they had only written peer feedback? Perhaps listening to, responding to, discussing, and coming to a decision on the validity of the comments from others helps students think about them more, internalize those they think are valid, etc. Is there a particular value to oral comments given face to face, such that it would be worthwhile to try to incorporate that into other courses? Giving just written comments to each other doesn’t allow for questions about what those mean, discussions about whether they are on target, etc. These discussions could help both the student giving and the student receiving comments.

b. Is it important to also have written comments as well as oral ones? It seems obvious that it would be, since some of the oral ones won’t be discussed as much, and could otherwise be forgotten. It would facilitate having a record to refer to for future assignments.

c. Could the face-to-face discussion be replaced by an online discussion instead, such as on a discussion board or via email or through some other means? Is that just as effective as the face-to-face giving and discussing of feedback by peers?

d. Is peer feedback without the professor in the room, or commenting on the comments somehow, just as effective as peer feedback with it? Or is there something important about the professor actually being face-to-face with the students in the peer feedback face-to-face session, or commenting on the discussion that takes place online (as per (c))?

e. Do the answers to these questions change with the kind of assignment being peer reviewed, the year/level of the students, the type of course, or something else?


In the next post I’ll review some SoTL literature that addresses some of these questions…



  1. Very interesting questions you’ve raised. I’m interested to see the answers you come up with.

    I’m wondering if some of the aspects of your questions – the impact of oral feedback but the drawback of it’s ephemeral nature – intersects with an approach I’ve used with instructors and in my own teaching for the past few years – providing recorded oral feedback. There was some small-scale research (which seems to have disappeared from the web) that pointed to the fact that students were more likely to accept and contemplate negative or critical comments when the comments were delivered orally.

    The perceived drawback with oral delivery, however, was that students’ remembrance of the comments seemed to shift the longer the time period from delivery and the number of times the student had thought about the comments. Hence the idea of presenting the feedback orally but capturing it so that students could return to the original comments.

    Anecdotal experience with recorded oral feedback in a post-graduate course in public health offered at the University of Calgary and an online certificate-level course in Social Media at the University of Calgary seems to point to the benefits of the ‘human touch’ when providing critical feedback. It would, of course, be interesting to do a study to learn more.
    I’m now going to look at your article on the ISOTL research – perhaps I’ll find some reference to the Rice article which started my interest in this subject.

    1. Hi Bonita:

      Thank you for your comment–I hadn’t heard of this research at all. The idea of recording oral comments is an interesting one, and I can see the point of having a record to go back to and re-listen to. I wonder, though, if it’s harder to re-use oral comments than written ones, since you have to go back and find the right places in the recording for what you’re looking at, or listen to the whole thing several times, which can be time-consuming. If there were an easy way to annotate such recordings so students could go right to certain parts, that’d be perfect!

      I’m most interested in oral feedback for the dialogue aspect–that people would be in the same synchronous space together (whether or not in the same room…could be online) and talking about the feedback. Then questions can be asked and answered, comments given on both sides, in the moment, rather than students perhaps having questions and comments and then forgetting them later, or deciding not to ask the prof (this could happen for various possible reasons). In my experience with such synchronous sessions, I find that my final comments on essays become different after talking to students directly about their work. We’re lucky in the Univ. of British Columbia Arts One program in that we get to talk to 4 students at a time, for an hour each week, about essays (we have 20 students, so have five of thes 4-student, 1-hour meetings per week!). I know that’s not common, but I find them to be very, very effective. And that’s the sort of oral feedback I’ve been most interested in, coming both from the professor and from peers.

      That’s not to say I am not interested in recording feedback for my other courses, necessarily–I just haven’t looked into it enough to figure out if I’d like to try it! It won’t have the back-and-forth discussion possibility of synchronous feedback, but I can certainly see that it could provide a more human connection.

      I’m not sure I talked about a paper by Rice…doesn’t sound familiar! Could you let me know what paper that is? I’d very much appreciate it! And any research you’ve done that I might be able to view would be great too!

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