Peer Collaboration and Critique: Using Student Voices to Improve Student Work
9th Grade Humanities, High Tech High
When I started thinking about what to research for my thesis, my 9th grade students had recently made movies. It was a long and grueling process that involved groups of students making original scripts, artwork, and background music. They animated and edited their movies on computers. I didn’t tell them what they had to do artistically, but in my classroom I ask that all work be done with a high level of effort, and the students know low quality work can not be handed in. Rather we revise to make things better. Many of the end products turned out very well. Some did not, for a wide range of reasons.
Each group of students had its own way of doing things. I can think of at least one group whose routine was to put as little effort in as possible, bring me just barely good enough or sub par work to get checked off as complete, and then wait for me to reject it and tell them what to do. They would then sigh an exasperated sigh as they walked back to the drawing board, grumbling about what Mrs. Ruff was making them do. It seemed our relationship was that of controller and controlled. They waited to see if they could get past criteria they saw as mine and, in some unfortunate ways, the movie became more about what I said was okay than what the students wanted.
Another group felt more comfortable working next door in our resource room, because they liked working with fewer students in the room in order to focus on their own project. They worked very hard, putting huge amounts of time into coloring pictures with pencil. They delegated work to be done and then would work individually in their corners, coming to me separately when they thought something was ready to be checked off as complete. Regularly, I would look at their work, and it would be a little off from everyone in the class’s, and even from their partners’, with mistakes or issues surfacing that most groups had already resolved. In most of the other groups, when one group discovered an issue or solved a technological problem, they would share with their neighbor, and like a chain reaction the solution would spread throughout the room. But the group that worked next door missed out, completely unaware of the collective knowledge of the larger learning community. Each time the secluded group brought me something to get checked off, or had to complete a new step they weren’t quite sure how to execute, I ended up walking them around the room, showing them their peers’ work and guiding them to specialists who knew how to make certain animations. They usually walked away surprised they hadn’t thought of certain ideas themselves and marveling at the things they hadn’t realized they could do with the editing programs. They also left with some ideas and insight into how to do things better, but then they would go back into their separate room and the cycle would start over. On the final showing night, their movie was complete and had enough information, but it was a little less professional and impressive than most of the highest quality films.
I especially liked working with a third group that was perpetually late turning in each step of the project and never paid attention to due dates. Each time I became worried and asked them how they were going to be ready in time for the big movie showing, they basically ignored me, which was probably a good thing. They never tried to turn in sub par work. When I would walk by, they would show me a painstakingly painted picture, and ask me what I thought, because it didn’t quite seem to visually work and they could not figure out why. Inevitably it would be a high quality picture that was fine, but was not quite as well conceived as their other beautiful work. They were right, it didn’t quite work. I would look at the picture they were showing me, which I knew they had spent three long days on at home and school, and I would have to ask them if they really wanted my opinion. Emphatically they would say yes, because they knew I studied art in college and especially love color, and I would talk to them about why the choice of one piece of warm color in the picture did not work with their cool theme and then show them how to make a grey out of the blues and oranges they had already used in other pictures, so that it visually worked. Each time we had a conversation like this, I would reiterate that they did not need to change anything, but I was just offering an opinion, not as a teacher but as someone who understands color; they would reflect on whether they agreed with my opinion, and when they did, without hesitation they would set to work repainting the offending color, determined to make the most beautiful piece of work they could. It never felt as if I was telling them what to do. Instead, it felt like we were all just trying to make a beautiful piece of work that was important to all of us. This same group knew that while art may be a strong point for me, technology is not. When they needed help on editing programs or changing around a picture, they sought out their most skilled peers in this arena to help them through. When they made music that the bulk of the class felt was too fast and peppy for their movie, it was not me who they listened to (I liked the music), but instead it was their peers. This delightful group of students used all of the collective knowledge in the room and was doing what I wish all of my students would do: collaborate.
There are many reasons why some projects turn out for some students, and others just never do. To say it is just putting in less effort or more effort, or having more or less skill is a little too simplified. The group of students who worked alone in the room next door for the majority of the movie making process worked very hard, cared what their final product looked like, and generally were high achieving students. But their movie did not turn out as well as it could have. One factor that arose for them, and consistently seems to arise in my project-based classroom, is how well students collaborate. Those who are willing and skilled at seeking out the specialists in the room to ask for help, consistently seem to turn out better work. They seem to get more good ideas from asking more people’s opinions, gain increased skills by working with people who are better than them at different tasks, and have a better idea of what cool things are going on in the room that they can then emulate and incorporate into their own projects.
Several questions have become very important as I increase collaboration in my classroom. How do I create a more comfortable environment for students for whom seeking out advice and ideas from others does not come naturally? How can they reap the same benefits from the process as those that are more comfortable? How do I teach the students to offer valuable feedback to others and create a culture in which students see themselves and others as valuable resources and holders of ideas? And how do I increase the students’ understanding that it should be their own determination of what is high quality work that sets the criteria for when a piece is done, rather than my standards that are the end judge of acceptability?
To explore these, I have researched the question, “How can I use critique to improve the quality of student feedback, student work and create a culture of collaboration?” I chose critique as my way of increasing collaboration because it has the potential to help set high standards, encourage advice giving in both formal and informal settings, and provide a forum for sharing of work and ideas. I also have used it to have students set their own standards for what high quality work entails.