REPORT ON PEER FEEDBACK IN CREATIVE WRITING AT DMU
This project was funded by the Higher Education Academy’s N.T.F.S. ‘Assessment and Feedback Awards 2010-11.’
2. GENERAL CONTEXT FOR THIS RESEARCH PROJECT
‘The major value of a writer’s workshop,’ claims Heather Leach, ‘is to have your work read and discussed by the other members of the group and to read and discuss the work of others in their turn.’ Such ‘workshopping,’ or peer feedback, is central to the way Creative Writing is taught in the U.K. and U.S. As Michelene Wandor writes, ‘Pivotal to workshop protocol, whatever its model, and seen as constituting its distinctive professional practice, is a special form of “criticism,” or critiquing … [within] the peer … group.’
Wandor and others, however, have more recently highlighted some of the pedagogical contradictions inherent within the Creative Writing workshop’s dominant model of peer feedback. For Wandor, the principles lying behind this kind of peer feedback are based on a ‘hard cop / soft cop methodology,’ according to which the ‘ideal’ workshop entails, on the one hand, ‘toughening [writers] … up to “take criticism,” to survive baptisms of fire,’ and, on the other hand, ‘avoiding hurting people’s feelings.’ This, Wandor claims, is ‘the irreconcilable conflict at the heart’ of the workshop model. Most conceptualisations of the Creative Writing workshop can be located on a continuum between a ‘hard cop’ or ‘soft cop’ approach. For example, Margaret Atwood clearly favours the former approach. For Atwood, the Creative Writing workshop is in danger of becoming overly supportive to the point of complacency: ‘Do you care enough about poetry to say, ever, that you think someone’s poem is terrible?’ By contrast, Paul Magrs writes of workshops that: ‘Every writer … needs at some point to belong to a supportive group.’ Andrew Cowan addresses this difficult balancing act in The Art of Writing Fiction; he writes that: ‘A wholly negative, and even vituperative response is unlikely to be anything but undermining and upsetting …. And while praise can be uplifting and affirming, it is rarely sustaining [for a writer].’
The presence of the workshop leader within this environment creates another conflicting dynamic; as Wandor writes, there is ‘inevitably … an inbuilt tension between the theoretically egalitarian responses of the peer-friendship group, and that of the tutor’ who, after all, ‘makes the final judgement in assessing and marking students’ work at the end of the course.’ There is clearly a power relationship between different kinds of feedback: since the tutor ‘makes the final judgement’ in assessing students’ work, his or her feedback is inevitably going to be accorded more weight by workshop participants than that from peers.
In a recent survey we undertook among undergraduate Creative Writing students at De Montfort University, we certainly found it to be the case that students privileged staff over peer feedback, at least in terms of their academic aspirations – in terms, that is, of seeking to obtain the best marks for their work. We also found, however, that peer feedback was valued by students in other and divergent ways, which, to some extent, privileged supportiveness over rigour, ‘soft cop’ over ‘hard cop.’
3. SPECIFIC CONTEXT FOR THIS RESEARCH PROJECT
At De Montfort University, Creative Writing is mainly taught in the Faculty of Humanities as an undergraduate joint honours B.A. course. In the third year of their degree, many of the Creative Writing students opt to take their ‘Dissertation’ on the Creative Writing side of their degree. The Dissertation-equivalent module in Creative Writing is called ‘Portfolio.’ As part of the Portfolio module, students are also allotted ‘response groups’ at the start of the year, consisting of five or six students each. Alongside two formative assignments, these response groups provide a framework in which students obtain critical feedback on their work during the year. After being set up by tutors, the response groups are student-led: the groups are meant to share work electronically, read each other’s work, and have regular meetings to discuss work throughout the year.
4. AIMS OF THE RESEARCH PROJECT
In undertaking this project, we aimed to examine (amongst other things):
· how this system of peer assessment via response groups is working and what improvements can be made to it,
· what are the benefits and drawbacks of response groups in feedback.
· what is the relationship between peer feedback and tutor feedback.
The project included the following steps:
1. Research Assistant and staff undertook a survey of students on the Portfolio module, asking them to reflect on their experiences of the response group system, its advantages and disadvantages, and what could be improved.
2. The Research Assistant and staff collated survey results, and drew up a report, with a series of conclusions, concerning the role of response groups, peer feedback and formative assessment in the module, as well as in Creative Writing and practice-based disciplines more broadly. This paper represents a summary of the full report (which is available on request). There is also a published essay on the subject : ‘Hard Cop and Soft Cop: Peer Feedback in Creative Writing,’ co-authored with Claire Baldwin, in Writing in Education, vol. 55, Autumn 2011, ISSN 1361-8539, pp.73-76.
7. RESPONSES TO THE SURVEY
Out of a total of 39 students registered for the Portfolio module, we received 27 completed surveys, roughly 69%. This good response rate allowed us to extrapolate patterns and conclusions from the survey.
8. RESULTS AND CONCLUSIONS OF THE SURVEY
8.1 Communication between group members
Many respondents (24) said that their group arranged meetings via Facebook (for example, through a dedicated Facebook group). Phones and texts (10) and emails (20) were also used widely. There seemed to be no major issues about communication between group members.
8.2 Timetabling meetings
A number of respondents (11) said that one of the major challenges in organising response group meetings was finding a time when everyone was free. This is bound to be a major issue, since Creative Writing undergraduates at De Montfort University are all joint honours students, so their timetables are often very different. At the beginning of the year, response groups should be advised to find regular slots when everyone in the group is free, and to keep to these slots if possible.
8.3 Frequency of meetings
14 respondents said that their group had met more than 5 times over the year; other respondents said that their group had met either 3, 4 or 5 times. No one said fewer than 3. Overall, this seems like quite a good rate for meetings, and is rather encouraging. 13 respondents said that they had attended all of their response group meetings, and only 2 students said that they had missed 3 of the meetings. Again, this is encouraging, although it is also probably the case that motivated students who attend response group meetings are more likely to have completed the questionnaires. As is often the case with surveys like this, the students who haven’t engaged as well with the system may not have responded to the questionnaire, and so their opinions, and reasons for not engaging with the response groups, might be under-represented.
8.4 Location of meetings
8 respondents said that their groups met in the pub, 14 in the library, 5 in both at different times. There is no obvious reason for directing students to meet in one particular place.
8.5 Sharing work in advance
15 students said that they shared drafts before meetings, to give other members time to read their work in advance. 6 said during meetings, while 7 said both. Overall, it seemed that sharing work in advance was marginally preferred by students – it means that students are able to give feedback straight away, rather than spending time reading at meetings.
8.6 The helpfulness of peer feedback
18 students said that they’d found response group feedback helpful, 6 said they hadn’t found it useful. One student said that response group feedback was ‘extremely helpful, outside perspectives have been vital.’ Overall, this seems like a positive result, and suggests that response groups are a useful mechanism for students. One issue, however, was that peer feedback was sometimes weak and one respondent said that members were ‘too afraid to criticize’ and wanted fewer ‘compliments.’ Another wrote that: ‘Tutors are much more to the point and actually know what they’re talking about in the places that need experience, like knowing how a story or piece could be improved; it tends to be a bit soft with the [response] group in that area.’Creative Writing staff already give advice in the first year on providing feedback to others, though it seems worth reinforcing this guidance at the start of the third year, perhaps by producing a short handout on peer feedback. Students are also encouraged to arrange regular meetings with their supervisors to discuss work and receive feedback, which gives them another outside perspective. As one student succinctly put it: ‘Feedback from varied sources is useful.’
8.7 Support groups
A significant number of respondents found response groups valuable in terms of the support and encouragement provided, whether or not the peer feedback was sufficiently thoroughgoing. One student said:‘I love having a support group that is familiar with my portfolio and with whose portfolios I am familiar. It’s just a nice social aspect of the module, which is otherwise quite solitary and hard-going.’This kind of encouragement and support is perhaps vital, in a module which is self-directed and ‘solitary.’ The response groups work not only as mechanisms of peer feedback, but also support mechanisms, in which students can encourage one another and share problems.
8.8 Variety versus similarity
Many respondents felt that the projects within their response groups were varied (in terms of subject matter, theme, genre); some drew connections between them. A number of respondents felt that it would be better if the response groups were made up of similar projects, because this would facilitate feedback, while others felt that a variety was preferable. Overall, there seemed to be no clear pattern here. One student summed up the arguments on both sides: ‘Variety. This is good, in that it makes the meeting interesting. Bad, because it is rare that we have the same issues in play, prose, and poem.’
8.9 Size of response groups
6 respondents were in groups of 4; 16 were in groups of 5; 2 were in groups of 6. Most respondents seemed happy with the number of members in their groups, though 3 of the respondents in groups of 5 said that they’d prefer it if the groups were smaller: ‘You get a lot of varied feedback but it is hard to get everyone together.’‘It takes up too much time reading everyone’s work.’ Given these responses, six is perhaps too large for a group.
8.10 Familiar versus unfamiliar people
7 respondents said that they found it easier to work with unfamiliar people in response groups; 8 said that they preferred working with familiar people or friends; 4 said that there was no real difference either way. Perhaps surprisingly, there is no clear outcome either way here, and some of the respondents saw the advantages and disadvantages on both sides of the question: ‘Working with people you know is also useful as they know your writing style but as ever it is useful to have a fresh pair of eyes on your work as they can maybe highlight slightly weaker aspects of your work.’
8.11 Changes to the response group system
A number of students said that they wouldn’t change anything about the current system, as they had not come across any serious issues with it. One or two respondents wanted students to choose their own response groups, which is worth discussing, though it might result in groups made of friends, with some students left out. One other way of dealing with the issue may be by making the criteria for response group selection more transparent to students from the outset. Then they will understand the make-up of their own response groups, and the reasons why they were grouped with the other individual students. A number of respondents wanted staff (supervisors and second readers) to attend response group meetings – though this may well not be possible, given limited resources and timetabling constraints.
10.1 Specific conclusions
Overall, the response group system of peer feedback seems to be working well, and students understand its importance. The response group system underlines the importance of receiving multiple perspectives on written work. Given the regularity of meetings reported in the surveys, many of the response groups also function as a way of ensuring that students are working on their projects throughout the academic year. In this and other senses, the response group system also functions as a kind of support mechanism for what might otherwise be a ‘solitary’ module. Recommendations arising from the survey for changes to the response group system include the following:
· at the beginning of the year, response groups should be advised to find and fix regular slots when everyone in the group is free, and to keep to these slots if possible.
· staff should consider reinforcing guidance on how to give feedback at the start of the third year. This might include distributing a short handout on peer feedback, and asking students themselves to reflect on what they expect to gain from peer feedback.