The Extraordinary Teaching Project: Developing Critical Thinking through Peer Review

Featured Instructors: 

Art Bettis, Ph.D., professor of earth & environmental sciences


Use peer review of writing to develop students’ critical thinking skills regardless of the size of the class. 


Art Bettis uses student peer review of writing in his large lecture course, Introduction to Environmental Science, to promote analysis, synthesis, and evaluation of course concepts and to engage with the process of scientific knowledge creation. This course was part of the Large Lecture Transformation Project at The University of Iowa. 

Key aspects of this strategy include critical thinking skills, writing skills, and Calibrated Peer Review (CPR).


Art Bettis, Ph.D., professor of earth & environmental sciences


Use peer review of writing to develop students’ critical thinking skills regardless of the size of the class.


Developing Critical Thinking through Peer Review

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[Art Bettis] One of the things I've learned from my time teaching is that different people learn different ways. And that some people learn better doing exercises. Some people learn better drawing things. And some people are better writing things.

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I’ve been teaching this course for twelve, thirteen years or something like that. It sometimes goes up to almost 200, usually not much smaller. It was pretty standard fare: Get up and give a lecture that kind of parallels the book that they were readingand feed a lot of information to them. And then just sort of standard kind of assessment with, once again, a large class, you know, very short answer things or multiple choice answers.

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We wanted a writing component to make them be able to think about things and find information, and develop ideas and to integrate various pieces of information into something that's whole; or, more than just spitting back facts and figures. And so this allowed them to really go at what really is a sort of a hallmark of Science and Engineering is that peer review process. And it's how we do science. It's, you know, we don't just go out there and do stuff. We have to report it.

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CPR is this Calibrated Peer Review. They write this prompt. The next step is the calibration. We provide them with three writings – really good, awful, sort of in-between – that they review. They fill out the rubric and assign an overall score to that. Then, after that's done, they get three of their classmates’ writings from the first part of this assignment to review. They go through the same rubric and assign a score – overall score – to. They get the comments back on their paper and they review their own paper using the same rubric and assign it a score.

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But they, across the board, felt that helped them be a better writer and it helped them think more about what they're reading. And that was what we wanted them to do. We were really surprised and shocked, actually, how the students’ writing with these short prompts really seemed to improve through the semester. And the really good sort of review comments we got back from some students.

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[Elana Becker] It taught me how, what to look out for, like how you posed your facts; what was a strong fact; how to structure your paragraphs; important things like that.

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[Art Bettis] What it did is it really, I think, instructed the students how to review pointed them to what we were thinking about and how our ranking of the essay was decided, and then made them sort of think along those lines, in fact and sometimes even better along some of those lines.

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In general students are more receptive to comments from peers than they are, well. They're more likely to think about them. Sometimes with instructors they just take what you say. They don't analyze it, and that's the whole idea here is to analyze. So you get this comment. You go: Well, are they right or not? And that's what we want them to ask. A lot of the feedback in there is from your instructors, it's just that it’s not face-to-face from your instructors. It’s the rubrics and it's the prompts and stuff like that's been put into the system.

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I think it accomplished what we wanted to accomplish as far as allowing students to write, to review each others’ work, and to become better critical thinkers