How your peers can boost your writing

Have you ever felt insecure about your writing? Have you ever asked another pupil or a friend to read over your homework and give you advice? In this blog post we tell you why and how your peers can make a difference to your writing, and which challenges you may encounter when giving peer feedback. The post is based on a talk we gave at the 10th Peer Writing Tutoring Conference in Cologne last autumn.

At many universities, if you are having doubts about your writing or are in the middle of a writing crisis you can go to a peer writing tutor. Peer writing tutors are students just like we are but they also help other students with their texts. That is useful because many students feel a lot more comfortable talking to a fellow student than talking to a teacher – they can be a lot more open about their problems. That is the basic idea and motivation behind peer tutoring. Peer writing tutors usually work in a university’s writing centre, which is a centre or department that offers workshops, courses and other forms of support to students and helps them to improve their writing.

The writing centre at Cologne University organised the 10th  Peer Writing Tutoring Conference (Schreib-Peer-Tutor*innen-Konferenz, short: SPTK) last autumn to give peer tutors the possibility to exchange ideas, discuss, present innovative projects, try out writing exercises in workshops and to learn from each other’s experiences. It took place from 30 September to 2 October 2017 in the main building of the University of Cologne. We participated in the conference as a team of teacher, teaching assistant and student. The title of our talk was “Who am I, who should I be? – Three perspectives on peer tutoring in writing: Student, teaching assistant, teacher”.

Main building of the University of Cologne

Peer tutoring does not only take place in writing centres, but we can all be peer tutors in our everyday lives. If you, for example, are asked for help by a fellow pupil and give him or her feedback on a text, then you take on the role of a peer tutor in that moment. This is the perspective we took in our talk.

Although the conference was aimed at peer tutors in writing centres and their experiences, we decided to present our view of peer tutoring outside of the writing centre. As teacher, teaching assistant and student we all have our own experiences with peer tutoring in writing. A teacher might give and receive feedback on texts by fellow teachers, colleagues or friends and family.

Students also proofread each other’s papers and give peer feedback to each other in the classroom. The feedback process in the classroom is often guided by the teacher, who can give instructions on how to give constructive feedback. The teaching assistant is also a student and takes part in these classes, but at the same time also gives tutorials to fellow students. In these tutorials, the students are supposed to learn how to write a proper term paper (i.e. a paper of 10-25 pages about one topic that should reflect what you have learned in one subject during the semester; can be compared to the ‘Facharbeit’ you have to write at school), so the teaching assistants’ task is to share and pass on their experience in academic writing to the other students. All of these examples can be seen as cases of peer tutoring outside of a writing centre.

The special focus of the conference was on the different role conflicts that participants of peer tutoring in writing might come across. As you can see from the title of our presentation, we focused on three primary roles (teacher, teaching assistant and student) and the conflicts we have faced in the past when we acted as peer tutors.

Sometimes being close to the tutee (the person you support) can be complicated, for example, if you are friends with each other. In this case it might be difficult for you to give them negative feedback and criticize them but you have to if you want to be helpful. Then you may find yourself in-between different role aspects (roles within your role as a student), e.g. you are torn between the role of a ‘friend’ or ‘motivator’ and that of a ‘critic’.

Sometimes it might also happen that the tutee has different expectations of what you can do for them. They might expect you to correct their whole paper, even though the only thing you can do is guide them to improve their paper themselves because because it is their text after all, not yours. In this case, there is a conflict between your expectations of the tutor’s role (‘coach’) and the expectations of the tutee, who wants you to be an ‘editor’ or ‘corrector’.

The conference programme and writing centre brochure

We explained these possible conflicts in our talk and tried to present ideas for dealing with these problems. A good tutor should be friendly, respectful, open and able to take a step back as well as to take someone else’s position. Additionally, he or she should be able to think about their own role and the tutee’s role, analyse their behaviour critically, and in the end be able to act appropriately in different situations. These characteristics and skills help the tutors to deal with conflicts and problems that they may experience. To get to this point, the peer tutors have to go through a learning process.

That is why writing centres train their peer tutors and give them the chance to keep improving themselves. Until now, we do not have such trainings at our department at the university (English Studies). We think that they would be very helpful because we also deal with peer tutoring in our university life and face similar problems. That is why we ended our talk with a call for change. With obligatory trainings for teaching assistants we could increase our awareness and learn to adapt our behaviour and become better peer tutors.

Even though we do not know if these ‘wishes’ will come true some day, we already learned a lot when thinking about our own experiences and preparing the talk and will surely be more aware of our role(s) as peer tutors in the future.

Does your teacher ever ask you to give each other feedback in class? Do you follow specific ‘rules’ then? Do you like receiving and giving feedback on a text you have written? …. Tell us in the comments section below!


Picture credits:

University of Cologne: “Universitätsstraße, Fahrbahnabsenkung an der Universität zu Köln. Im Hintergrund der Haupteingang zum Hauptgebäude der Universität” by Raimond Spekking is licenced under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons. Picture slightly modified (cropped).

Three people around table (featured image) and classroom: Design/arrangement of figurines and photo by S. and H. Pohle.

Conference programme and writing centre brochure: Photo by I. Mays.


Sarah Lapacz and Inken Mays are students of the Applied Linguistics Master Programme.

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