This semester I incorporated writing groups into my college course, Cognitive Psychology of Education. The course includes freshmen (who at UVa are called “First years”) at one end, and PhD students at the other. With a total of 31 students, we have eight writing groups of three or four students each.
I decided to use writing groups to individualize instruction by grouping students at similar stages together, and to allow them to give and receive peer feedback. As Dr. Bill McKeachie, my first teaching mentor, points out in Teaching Tips, “interactions that facilitate learning need not be limited to those with teachers. Often those with peers are more productive.”
I’ve been grandly impressed so far. We’ve held two writing groups during class. The first time, students critiqued an informal blog-style post on a course topic they found interesting. The second time, they critiqued one another’s proposals for their course project, either a research proposal, policy paper, or magazine article that they work on all semester.
In both sessions, students followed my instructions to the letter:
When I was in my early twenties, I’m pretty sure my ego would have impeded such a task. At that stage, I was hungry for positive affirmation and afraid of any type of criticism – even constructive criticism. In discussion of my work, I drowned out anything that wasn’t a compliment with a long explanation of why I made the choices I did. Maybe if I explain it more, they’ll understand. It’s not me, it’s them!
It wasn’t until I had to seriously revise a manuscript, in graduate school (or was it as a postdoc?!?), that I learned the critical ego lessons:
- Critiques are part of the learning process.
- Critiques are not personal.
- The readers are always (OK, 99.5% of the time) right, and responding sincerely to their critiques improves the work.
Why do my students – some of them not yet 20 years old!! – seem so adept at taking critiques with grace? It took me years, and hours of patient mentoring, to realize critiques were not personal attacks on me, but simply suggestions for improving the work. I harbor a secret theory and hope that we humans are slowly, collectively evolving. My other hypotheses include:
- My students have adopted a growth mindset, which is Dr. Carol Dweck’s idea that mistakes are part of learning.
- They know that practice and targeted feedback can help you learn more efficiently.
- They are aliens from a planet where there is no ego and everyone just helps each other with politeness and sincerity.
Whatever the answer, here are three of my favorite quotes from students in writing group:
In response to my question of whether a group needed more time:
“He hasn’t thanked us for our feedback yet,” (Followed by playful laughter and actual thanking).
Overheard during a discussion:
“It’s just that I think your premise is wrong.” (This was followed by a respectful debate about the nature of education and testing).
In response to my walking around, checking in with groups:
“I decided to reorganize my paper after seeing how C. did it!”
Now three final questions:
- Am I proud of my students? Absolutely.
- Do I know how they got this way? Not exactly…
- Will I happily take a little credit? Yes, but only along with the students themselves, their parents, teachers, grandparents, and mentors, Dr. Dweck, any other writing group experience they’ve had, the evolving human race, and the universe.
Now that I’m not in my twenties, I’ve also learned that while individual effort is necessary to success, there is no such thing as individual accomplishment. We accomplish things in the context of our cultures and communities and in the incubator of our families, classes, and jobs. If those contexts provide us with support – whether emotional or economic – then we can thrive. In those types of contexts, we can learn and grow. If we get feedback about how to improve, in a safe setting where we can actually hear it, we can thrive. On the other hand, if our contexts undermine us, underpay us, or stress us out, we can’t.
I know what kind of world I want to live in. My students are on their way to creating it, one thoughtful critique at a time.
— Claire Elizabeth Cameron PhD is a co-founder of BACCA Literary where she practices her critiquing skills. She is a research scientist at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia and teaches the Cognitive Psychology of Education.
 McKeachie, W. J. (2002). McKeachie’s Teaching Tips: Strategies, research, and theories for college and university teachers. Eleventh edition. Houghton Mifflin. P. 188.