From the CanLit Guides Workshop to the Writing Centre: Using the Think-Aloud Protocol as a Tool for Peer Review

It’s almost lunchtime on a Tuesday morning, and although undergraduate students are studying silently just outside the door, the Davis Centre library’s conference room is abuzz with chatter. Scattered throughout the room are doctoral students reading and chatting as part of Dissertation Boot Camp – an intensive four-day program designed to help graduate students make progress on their writing projects. These students are reviewing each other’s work using the “Think-Aloud Protocol.” This peer review technique is new to all of these students, and as the facilitator for this group, it’s new to me, too. I learned this approach only a few weeks earlier at a workshop, and it’s my first time trying it out with any group of students.

In addition to being Writing and Multimodal Communication Specialists, most of us at the Writing Centre also conduct research and write about the disciplines we are trained in (History, Kinesiology, Classics, etc.). I'm a specialist in Canadian literature, so at the end of May I travelled to Vancouver, British Columbia to participate in the CanLit Guides Workshop  at UBC.

Canadian Literature, which is an academic journal, also publishes CanLit Guides, an online resource for undergraduate students made up of “chapters” and complete “guides” about Canadian literature and culture. Scholars who had written drafts of these chapters for the site – on topics from the history of print culture in Canada, to Joy Kogawa's Obasan, to a critical analysis of the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission – gathered at Green College on the UBC campus to workshop their chapters, discuss what CanLit Guides could look like in the future, and share effective teaching strategies. The two-day workshop was a wonderful experience, full of discussions with passionate, collegial educators who care deeply about students and their learning. For me, one of the most useful parts of the workshop was the experience of shifting out of my usual Writing Centre role and into the role the students I work with experience; I got to be a writer having her own work reviewed.

When students come to the Writing Centre for consultations, I often have them read their work aloud to me. Reading out loud gives them an opportunity to notice mechanical errors, missing information, and contradictions in arguments on their own. Listening while a student reads also gives me a chance to react to the text; a consultation allows writers to see how a real, live reader might interpret or respond to what they have written in a way that helps them become more aware of the needs of their audience.

Although the context he describes is slightly different from the kind of writing consultation I’ve just described, Nelson Graff, who writes about his experience using the Think-Aloud Protocol as a peer-review technique, points out the potential benefits that students experience by reading, or having their work read, out loud:

     Hearing their writing read in the same way they have heard published      writing can reinforce students' sense of authorship, that they are            writing to communicate and must consider how their decisions affect        readers. When I use this strategy with college students, they begin to      talk about their writing much more frequently in terms of decision-          making and the responses they hope to effect in readers. (p.85)

To facilitate this kind of experience at the CanLit Guides Workshop, Kathryn Grafton, the Associate Editor of the project, introduced us to the “Think-Aloud Protocol”: a method featured in Academic Writing: An Introduction. After experiencing it for myself, I was convinced that it could be a useful tool for guiding both undergraduate and graduate students through the peer-review process, either during class time or as part of an informal writing group, or even online using a video chat tool such as Skype or Google Hangouts

Here's how the Think-Aloud Protocol works:

  1. Every writer brings two printed copies of their work to the peer review session
  2. Writers divide into pairs
  3. In each pair, a "reader" reads 1-2 sentences of a writer’s work out loud and then reacts to those sentences out loud.
  4. While the reader reads and reacts, the writer’s job is to listen to the reactions and record them on their own copy of the work without interjecting, defending their work, or reacting to the reader's reactions.
  5. The writer and reader switch roles halfway through the peer review session; the former writer now reads and reacts out loud to the former reader's work.
  6. Both writers come away from this peer-review session with notes about a reader’s reactions to their work. They can use these reactions to help identify aspects of their work they might want to focus on when developing a plan for revision.

(For a more detailed description of this process, see the directions Graff gives to students in Fig. 1 on p.84 of his article)

This method can help students to gain the benefits that writing studies research shows us practicing peer review can offer: “by giving peer feedback, student writers mature into better reviewers of their own writing as well (Lundstrom & Baker, 2009)” (Kim 600). By working hard to offer clear, useful suggestions as peer reviewers, students also strengthen their own writing skills.

Graff’s article describes his decision to use this peer review method to help students "engage in authentic writing to master the complex decisions authors must confront when they compose for real audiences. That decision-making could benefit from "real" reader feedback, not feedback aimed—however helpfully—at correcting the paper" (p. 81). When receiving feedback on my own writing at the CanLit Guides Workshop, I benefited from seeing how a reader reacted to my work in real-time in this same way.

I’m used to writing articles and essays that appear in print for an academic audience. I know the conventions for that genre, but writing for the web involves a completely different set of conventions (just ask Mandy Penney, our Digital Communication Specialist. As someone new to this genre, it turns out I had missed a lot of opportunities to include links and audio-visual resources to support the claims and observations in my text. Also, my sentences were long. Academic article long. I needed to adopt a less formal tone.

Having someone read and react to my online chapter helped me to realize what aspects of this project I needed to keep working on. Using the Think-Aloud Protocol at the CanLit Guides Workshop helped me to rethink my own writing project as much as it helped graduate writers during Dissertation Boot Camp. I think this approach could work for you and your students, too.

What peer-review strategies or methods do you use with your own students? Have you ever used the Think-Aloud Protocol? How did it work for you?

Works Cited and Additional Resources

Chang, Ching-Fen. “Peer Review via Three Modes in an EFL Writing              Course.”Computers and Composition.29 (2012): 63-79. Print.

Giltrow, Janet, Richard Gooding, Daniel Burgoyne and Marlene Sawatsky.      Academic Writing: An Introduction – Third Edition. Peterborough, ON:      Broadview, 2014. Print.

Graff, Nelson. Approaching Authentic Peer Review. The English Journal.          98.5 (2009):81-97. Web. https://www.jstor.org/stable/40503303?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

Kim, Hyon Soo. “Preparing English Learners for Effective Peer Review in        the Writers’ Workshop.” The Reading Teacher. 68.8 (2015): 599-603.        Print.

Sitko, Barbara M. "Exploring Feedback: Writers Meet Readers." Hearing        Ourselves Think: Cognitive Research in the Writing Classroom. Ed.          Ann M. Penrose and Barbara M. Sitko. New York: Oxford, 1993. 170-        87. Print.

Stratman, James F., and Liz Hamp-Lyons. "Reactivity in Concurrent             Think- Aloud Protocols." Speaking about Writing: Reflections on               Research Methodology. Ed. Peter Smagorinsky. Thousand Oaks: Sage,     1994. 89-1 12. Print.

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