Peer review (PR) is typically an academic endeavour whereby the suitability of a manuscript for publication is evaluated by experts in the same field. This process begins with a formative submission and may require multiple revisions following reviewers’ feedback (Peer Review: the nuts and bolts, 2012). Clearly, in the publishing domain, critically engaging in the PR process is vital in determining whether an article is published. Taylor (2019) suggests that this type of systematic peer feedback procedure for evaluating academic articles can be applied within a university context to assist students in giving and receiving feedback on assignments. This article reports on a research project evaluating the effectiveness of PR training as a pedagogical activity for pre-masters students. The context for this study was an eight-week pre-sessional English (PSE) programme at a transnational university in China.
Evidence suggests cultural influences can be barriers to developing PR as an effective pedagogical activity. Outside the transnational university context, Hu (2019) has established that cultural-historical learning experiences (i.e., the macroculture) may negatively influence students’ appreciation of peer feedback. The variations within a macroculture (i.e., different mesocultures), for example a transnational university, can provide space to introduce PR. However, how successfully a transnational university can embed PR as a legitimate pedagogical activity depends on the particular module, programme, or group of students (i.e., a microculture). Designing a postgraduate pre-sessional programme provided an opportunity for the integration and implementation of a supportive pedagogy consisting of four scaffolded layers of PR training, aiming to enhance students’ engagement with PR. Students’ perceived engagement with the PR process was analysed during the PSE programme and ongoing engagement was analysed during their master’s degree. In a similar previous intervention, Jones et al. (2017) found that a PR training model could improve students’ confidence in understanding and utilizing marking rubrics to improve their performance in written assignments. However, there is a lack of research into whether such PR training models can overcome the cultural barriers faced by Chinese students in transnational contexts.
Roles of peer review
Peer review for language learners is defined as a procedure for language learners to give and receive feedback at various stages during a writing process and integrate this feedback into later drafts (Hu & Collett, 2020). Engagement with the procedure is expected to help students develop their competence as peer reviewers and reviewees through becoming more aware of the writing process while reading others’ written work (Lundstrom & Baker, 2009) and understanding the relationship between author-audience stance (Mendonca & Johnson, 1994). These practices encourage peer negotiation of meaning, leading to a more critical approach when learners incorporate feedback into later drafts.
Student engagement in peer feedback in English as Foreign Language (EFL) contexts has been examined in various ways. Deci and Ryan’s (1985) self-determination theory (SDT), a theory of motivation to facilitate growth, identifies three core elements required for engagement: competence, relatedness, and autonomy. It has been used as a theoretical framework to explore engagement in different educational practices, e.g., by Niemiec and Ryan (2009). Hu and Collett (2020) identified the three elements of SDT as a relevant framework to investigate students’ engagement in PR: competence refers to students’ perceived abilities to give and receive feedback; relatedness concerns students’ willingness to share with classmates; autonomy relates to students taking ownership of the feedback process. A lack of engagement in PR due to students’ limited competence, relatedness, and autonomy is especially noticeable in Chinese contexts.
Cultural influences on engagement with PR
The contexts surrounding the multifaceted nature of learning and teaching distinguishes three levels of mutually dependent influence: the macro, meso, and micro levels (Douglas Fir Group, 2016). Studies into Chinese students’ lack of engagement with PR (e.g., Hu, 2019; Hu & Ren, 2012) identify influences at each of these levels.
Macrocultures refer to society as a whole, for example, political, economic, and social factors (Hu, 2019). The dominant characteristics of a country’s education system can be regarded as one macroculture exerting influence on students’ behaviours and preferences. In China, these macrocultural influences are typically characterized by teacher-centred, examination-oriented approaches (Zhao, 2014) where it is the responsibility of a teacher, not students, to give feedback (Tsui & Ng, 2000). This tends to create a strong preference for teacher feedback over peer feedback among Chinese students (Alavi & Kaivanpanah, 2007). From the perspective of SDT, this can negatively affect students’ competence to evaluate their own work and the work of others, as well as having an adverse effect on their autonomy in taking ownership of the feedback process.
Maintaining harmony is another strong macrocultural aspect of Chinese society. Carson and Nelson (1996) found that conflict avoidance among Chinese students caused reluctance to critique peers’ drafts. From the perspective of SDT, Chinese students’ engagement with PR is hindered by their understanding of relatedness as they value maintaining harmony with classmates over critiquing others’ performance. However, Hu (2019) indicates that a major limitation of examining cultural practices only from a macrocultural perspective is the neglect of cultural variation, leading to the need to consider mesocultural and microcultural perspectives.
Mesocultures refer to variations within a particular society, for example different groups or types of organizations (Hu, 2019). Within the macroculture of the Chinese education system, one such variation can be found in transnational universities. Transnational universities provide educational models promoting English-speaking education (Perrin, 2017) and facilitate ‘the mobility of an educational program or higher education institution (HEI)/provider between countries’ (Knight, 2015, p. 36). These universities operate at a level of society that emphasize the importance of encountering sociocultural and educational differences in learning environments (Lee et al., 2012). In China, further variation can be found between transnational universities depending on the educational model adopted. For example, Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University (XJTLU), a transnational university based in China, borrows and adapts from the University of Liverpool (UoL) to create its own unique model (Feng, 2013), providing the flexibility to synthesize elements from UoL into the development of its programmes and modules. Hu (2019) argues that new learning environments, such as transnational universities, can provide a mesocultural platform to mediate the differences between students’ previous learning environment with their new environment. While Hu (2019) highlights the potential of mesocultures to develop deeper student engagement in peer feedback, he recognizes the extent to which this can happen in reality is dependent on the specific microculture in which the learning and teaching takes place.
Microcultures refer to the everyday actions of individuals within wider cultures, comprising ‘patterned beliefs and practices resulting from individuals’ interactions with and appropriations of cultural materials at hand in an immediate social environment such as an L2 writing class’ (Hu, 2019, p. 53). Hu (2019) argues that for PR to be effective within a given microculture, many elements of student training and implementation need to be in place. He describes such a training programme as, ‘an expansive array of pedagogical strategies and actions adopted to create a microcultural environment that would enable students to engage with feedback as a culturally appropriate and legitimate pedagogical activity’ (Hu, 2019, p. 57). He goes on to suggest making peer feedback a collective endeavour benefiting the entire group rather than individual students in order for PR to become ingrained within the microculture of classroom practice. Likewise, Zhao (2014) maintains that successful student engagement with PR can only be realized through sustained teacher support in the form of monitoring, scaffolding, and appraisal of peer feedback. Meanwhile, other studies identify students’ lack of engagement with PR as stemming from poor implementation of PR training (Hu & Lam, 2010), such as the difficulties with interpreting and applying marking rubrics (Andrade & Valtcheva, 2009) and ineffective use of feedback sheets (Hyland, 2000). Thus, sufficient space should be provided in the curriculum to integrate PR training, incorporating these various facets of necessary teacher support. However, there is a lack of previous research into the effects of such training programmes to move from the mesoculture of Chinese transnational universities to effective implementation of PR within specific microcultures.
Scaffolding of PR at microcultural levels
One significant study by Hu (2005) monitored the effects of integrating a PR training programme into an EAP course for Chinese undergraduates where English is the Medium of Instruction (EMI). EMI refers to ‘the use of English to teach a nonlanguage subject in a context where English is not the official language’ (Galloway et al., 2020, p. 396).Over three years, it was found that students’ engagement with peer feedback was dependent on embedding routines throughout the course that normalized the process as part of a new microcultural practice. Hu (2005) concluded that continual reinforcement of this practice led students to take the process of PR seriously and to recognize its positive effects on improving their academic writing. Another study into PR at a Chinese transnational university (Hu & Collett, 2020) produced less encouraging results. Students were provided peer feedback on essay drafts using checklists based on marking rubrics. However, this was an isolated activity appended to an existing curriculum that did not include any PR training. Results showed students’ disengagement with PR due to a lack of perceived competence, autonomy, and relatedness (Hu & Collett, 2020), illustrating the importance of the key factors necessary for engagement in Deci and Ryan’s (1985) self-determination theory.
These studies indicate that, in the context of transnational universities in China, PR processes are unlikely to be effective unless established at a microcultural level by embedding integrated PR training and support into curricula. However, the level of scaffolding which Hu’;s (2005) study suggests is required to successfully establish PR as a sustained long-term process is extremely rare in Chinese transnational contexts. Considering the situation through the lens of SDT (Deci & Ryan, 1985), while Hu’;s (2005) study established engagement in PR through improved competence and relatedness, students were not engaged autonomously since a high degree of teacher involvement was present at every stage. Clearly, macrocultural obstacles have an enduring influence on Chinese students’ dependence on teacher-centred models. Therefore, questions remain as to the appropriate level of scaffolding to support these students’ engagement with PR, and how and when this scaffolding can be removed to allow students to move from teacher-led processes to continue engaging with PR autonomously throughout their academic careers. This study aims to explore whether PR training is an effective pedagogical activity for Chinese students on an eight-week pre-sessional programme at a transnational university. The following research questions were used to guide the study:
Q1: Is peer review training an effective pedagogical activity for students on an eight-week pre-sessional programme at a transnational university?
Q2: What are the hindering factors for students’ engagement in autonomous peer review after the training programme?
This study was conducted during an eight-week online PSE course at XJTLU, a joint venture transnational university located in Suzhou, China, and partnered with the University of Liverpool. According to official data (XJTLU, 2020), the university has nearly 18,000 students and over 1,000 academic staff from over fifty different countries. While the majority of staff are of foreign nationality, the majority of students are Chinese. Of these Chinese students, the majority enter XJTLU from a traditional Chinese educational learning environment. XJTLU (2020) claims to integrate the best teaching practices from China and the U.K., combining both Eastern and Western cultures to ‘explore new models for higher education that will exert a strong influence on the development of education in China’. In other words, XJTLU claims to embrace innovative microcultures that will shape the macroculture of China.
According to XJTLU’s language policy, 100% of the teaching is conducted in English. This requires students to enter the university already possessing a certain level of English proficiency. To cope with the varying linguistic demands of different subjects, each programme can set its own entry requirements. For master’s degrees, these entry requirements range from IELTS 6.0 (e.g., MSc Financial Computing, MSc Applied Informatics) to IELTS 7.5 (e.g., MA China Studies). However, students whose English level is one IELTS band below the entry requirement can receive a conditional offer to enrol based on the successful completion of an eight-week PSE course. Once enrolled on their master’s courses, these students then have the option of in-sessional English language and skills support throughout their postgraduate study.
In the present study, the participants consisted of all forty-nine students on the PSE course. All were Chinese postgraduates going on to study a variety of different master’s subjects at XJTLU. For the majority of students, the PSE was their first experience of academic study in English. The writing assessment on the course consisted of an 1,100-1,300-word argumentative essay. Students were guided through a process to develop this essay lasting the duration of the course, which included formative feedback from teachers and peers. Students were supported in giving and receiving peer feedback through the four-layered PR programme detailed in the following section.
Design and implementation of PR training model
Overview of PR training model
With the aim of improving EAP students’ engagement in the peer review process, a four-layered training model was developed to embed PR within an eight-week PSE curriculum, following Hu’;s (2019) recommendation to develop a microculture in which students are supported to give and receive feedback using a range of integrated pedagogical activities. The four layers of this model are:
Layer 1 = Rubrics: Deconstructing and applying the marking rubric
Layer 2 = Taught sessions: Raising awareness of peer review
Layer 3 = Feedback sheets: Completing formative feedback sheets
Layer 4 = Reflection: Reflecting on the peer review process
The four layers were designed to address the reasons behind Chinese students’ lack of engagement in the PR process as identified by Hu and Ren (2012). These issues include a preference for teacher-centred feedback (Alavi & Kaivanpanah, 2007; Tsui & Ng, 2000), tendency towards harmony maintenance (Carson & Nelson, 1996), poor implementation of PR training (Hu & Lam, 2010), and lack of sustained teacher support and scaffolding (Zhao, 2014). By addressing these constraints, this training model sought to improve students’ competence, relatedness, and autonomy, and thus their engagement with the PR process, in line with Deci and Ryan’s (1985) SDT framework. The four layers of this training model were systematically embedded at various strategic points throughout the eight-week syllabus to prepare students for peer feedback on the development of their argumentative essays, which were submitted at the end of the course. A summary of the four layers embedded into the PSE syllabus is shown in the table below:
Layer 1: Deconstructing and applying the marking rubric
The first layer of the training model, developing students’ understanding and utilization of the marking rubric (see
At four points throughout the course, sessions were dedicated to students utilizing the marking rubric to grade three sample essays of varying standards. In Jones et al.’s (2017, p. 133) study, these ‘student-essay standardization’ sessions played an important role in helping students to ‘improve their critical judgement and develop deeper learning practices’, which is crucial to providing and applying peer feedback. Each of these sessions followed a series of lessons focused on addressing one specific criterion. For example, throughout Week 2, students were guided on the selection and use of sources, and at the end of Week 2 students graded the sample essays under the category of ‘Sources’. This pattern continued throughout the course (see
Summary of embedded layers in PSE syllabus
|0||1||Rubrics: Marking rubric for essay assignment introduced through asynchronous video guides|
|1||2||Taught session: Academic cultural differences. Students introduced to the concept of different forms of feedback & key terminology|
|4||Reflection: Understanding of essay marking rubric|
|2||1||Rubrics: Students graded sample essay under category of ‘Sources’|
|4||Reflection: Using marking rubric to evaluate sources|
|3||2||Taught session: Preparing appropriate feedback. Students taught strategies to link peers’ work to relevant assessment criteria & provide suitable comments|
|1||Rubrics: Students graded sample essay under category of ‘Structure & Development’|
|4||Reflection: Using marking rubric to evaluate structure & development|
|4||2||Taught session: Video analysis. Students guided to watch a mock group of students engaging in peer review to identify positive and negative features.|
|3||Feedback sheets: Students completed templates to prepare comments on PR partners’ essay outlines|
|PR SESSION: Essay outlines|
|2||Taught session: Acting on peer feedback by developing action points|
|4||Reflection: Preparing and participating in PR on outlines|
|5||1||Rubrics: Students graded sample essay under category of ‘Language’|
|4||Reflection: Using marking rubric to evaluate language|
|6||1||Rubrics: Students graded sample essay under category of ‘Task Response’|
|4||Reflection: Using marking rubric to evaluate task response|
|7||3||Feedback sheets: Students completed templates to prepare comments on PR partners’ essay drafts|
|PR SESSION: Essay drafts|
|4||Reflection: Preparing and participating in PR on essay drafts|
|2||Taught session: Importance of independent learning & benefits of autonomous PR|
|7-8||OPTIONAL AUTONOMOUS PR SESSION|
|8||4||Reflection: Preparing and participating in autonomous PR session|
|4||Reflection: Reflective essay writing|
Layer 2: Raising awareness of peer review
The second layer of this training programme comprised taught sessions to raise students’ awareness of PR. At various points throughout the syllabus, the course materials addressed issues related to PR. Students were first introduced to the concept of PR in Week 1, with a lesson on academic cultural differences, particularly different forms of feedback (formative/summative, teacher/peer, written/oral), leading to a discussion on the various benefits, challenges, and cultural influences on feedback preferences. The rationale here was to address the macrocultural influences behind Chinese students’ lack of engagement in PR, as identified by Hu and Ren (2012), by getting students to reflect on and analyse the reasons behind their preference for certain forms of feedback. The purpose of explicitly highlighting the contrasts between academic cultures was to address the macrocultural influences of traditional Chinese educational models at a microcultural level, as recommended by Hu (2019).
Subsequent lessons reinforced the process of giving and responding to peer feedback. In Week 3, in preparation for PR on essay outlines, strategies were taught for identifying relevant criteria from the assessment rubric to prepare appropriate feedback comments on classmates’ work. The purpose was to address students’ lack of competence as reviewers, as previous studies (e.g., Greenberg, 2015) show that pinpointing specific areas for improvement can foster deeper engagement in the learning process.
A further lesson in Week 4 was based around a video showing a mock group of students giving and receiving peer feedback. Follow-up questions asked students to consider whose feedback was most appropriate and why. Students were guided to identify that one student’s feedback was constructive, polite, and actionable, while another student’s feedback was impolite and gave no practical advice. Students were also asked to consider the reviewees’ response to this feedback, and identified how a student reacted defensively to impolite feedback and positively to constructive feedback. The purpose was to overcome the macrocultural challenge of Chinese students’ reluctance to critique peers’ work due to the tendency towards harmony maintenance identified by Carson and Nelson (1996). Promoting open discussion of feedback has been shown to develop students’ sense of inclusion and connectedness (Taras, 2010). Therefore, from the perspective of SDT, watching a group of students interact in this way, witnessing their willingness to share and their feeling of responsibility for their classmates’ development, and being asked to consider the effect that one student’s feedback can have on another (practically and emotionally) was intended to improve the students’ sense of relatedness.
Following students’ PR on essay outlines, another taught lesson focused on providing strategies for the reviewee to effectively act upon peer feedback by identifying key areas of their work to change and developing suitable action points. This was also a stage included in the training model of Jones et al. (2017) with the purpose of encouraging students to ‘recognise the value of feedback for critical reflection and work quality and return the process to learning’ (p. 134). Critical reading and analysis of feedback comments and suggestions has been shown to improve students’ engagement with PR and ability to critically analyse their own work (Taras, 2003).
Finally, in Week 7, students were taught the importance of autonomous learning in postgraduate education and were guided to discuss the benefits of independently arranging their own PR sessions, both before their PSE essay deadline as well as for future master’s assignments. The purpose was to overcome the macrocultural challenge of teacher-centred approaches and preference for teacher feedback among Chinese students (Alavi & Kaivanpanah, 2007). From an SDT perspective, the question of autonomy is especially important for promoting students’ ongoing engagement with PR in the transition to their master’s programmes, where levels of scaffolding and monitoring of peer feedback are likely to be far more limited. Overall, through the PR training model students experienced a series of lessons that sought to develop their competence, relatedness, and autonomy as writers and reviewers, identified by Deci and Ryan (1985) as key indicators of engagement, as well as addressing the cultural barriers identified by Hu and Ren (2012).
Layer 3: Completing formative feedback sheets
The third layer involved introducing a template for students to prepare for their PR sessions on different aspects of their essay writing. Students were told who their PR partners would be and given access to their work (initially their outlines, and later their drafts) to prepare their feedback comments. Feedback templates were provided that guided students to examine the specific aspects of the marking rubric relevant to that stage of the writing process. Specifically, the feedback preparation form for outlines focused on the introduction, essay structure, and sources (see
These templates were also used as the means for demonstrating examples of appropriate and inappropriate peer feedback in both lessons and video guides in Weeks 3-4 (see Layer 2), which took students through the process of completing these templates and using them effectively when giving feedback. This layer was designed in response to poor implementation of PR training (Hu & Lam, 2010), particularly the ineffective use of feedback sheets (Hyland, 2000). Min (2005) found that coaching students to use feedback sheets to produce more specific comments helped them avoid the common problem of vagueness, leading to improved confidence, skill, and use of metacognitive strategies as peer reviewers.
Layer 4: Reflection on the peer review process
The fourth layer of this training programme involved using weekly forums for students to reflect on their engagement with the PR process throughout the course. At the end of each week, students posted their reflections in a forum. Students were given a weekly theme reflecting a different aspect of the process. For example, in Week 1, students reflected on the essay marking rubric. Subsequent sessions involved reflection on strategies to evaluate sample essays, giving and receiving formative peer feedback on outlines and drafts, and moving from teacher-centred to autonomous PR (see
Applying the PR training model to peer feedback sessions
These four layers of PR training, integrated within the PSE curriculum, progressively guided students through a process of utilizing rubrics to evaluate assessments, raising awareness of PR in lessons, using templates to guide feedback comments, and reflecting on the PR process. At two points in the process of writing their argumentative essays, students had the opportunity to apply this training to their own peer feedback sessions. During these sessions, groups of three to four students gave and received feedback on outlines (Week 4) and drafts (Week 7). Reviewers followed their notes (see Layer 3) to provide oral formative feedback comments. Meanwhile, reviewees listened and took notes on key points. Immediately following these sessions, students were guided to synthesize this peer feedback with teacher feedback from tutorials to identify key areas for improvement and formulate action points to guide the following stages of their essay-writing process. After lessons on the value of autonomous PR in Week 7 (see Layer 2), students were encouraged to independently arrange PR sessions outside of class following the same procedure. Thus, students’ peer feedback sessions were supported by a carefully scaffolded training programme focused on addressing relevant cultural obstacles, which follows the suggestion of Hu (2019, p. 57) that promoting students’ engagement with PR requires ‘an expansive array of pedagogical strategies and actions’ that are ‘culturally appropriate’ within the given context to embed PR within the microculture of a course.
Data collection and analysis
Data was gathered during the course from reflective essays, which were submitted by forty-six of the forty-nine students. The content of these essays was based on online weekly forums, set up to encourage students to reflect on different aspects of the PR process. A 400-500-word reflective essay was assigned at the end of the course, with students encouraged to use content from their own and classmates’ forums. Reflective writing is considered a suitable instrument for asynchronous learning environments, encouraging critical analysis of the learning process, and allowing students to experiment with ideas without feeling constrained by rigid structures and rules (Sasidharan, 2018). Thematic analysis was used to code data from the reflective essays under the three elements of Deci and Ryan’s (1985) framework: competence, relatedness, and autonomy.
Follow-up data was collected from a ninety-minute online focus group six months after the PSE course to investigate students’ continued engagement with PR during their master’s programmes. The reason for this six-month gap was to give students sufficient time to settle into the routines of their master’s programmes and complete feedback cycles for several written assignments. Eight of the former PSE students were selected based on an analysis of the varying levels of perceived engagement from their reflective essays. The general direction of the discussion was pre-determined using guided discussion questions, exploring students’ opinions on the PR training programme, focusing on the features, benefits, and criticisms, and the outcomes of this approach. A focus group instrument was used to involve participants in the research process through dialogic discourse (McKernan, 1991) and to explore students’ views on the PR training, as discussions make it possible to understand values, preferences, attitudes, and perceptions (Tuckman, 1972). Data from the focus group discussion was coded thematically under the three elements of Deci and Ryan’s (1985) framework.
Data collected from the reflective essays was used to answer RQ1. Follow-up data from the focus group was used to answer RQ1 and RQ2. Data was categorized under cultural factors and the three core elements of engagement: competence, relatedness, and autonomy.
Q1: Is peer review training an effective pedagogical activity for students on an eight-week pre-sessional programme at a transnational university?
Regarding competence, thirty-five out of forty-six students mentioned benefits to their writing. Of these, twenty-one students reported tangible advice they had given to coursemates reflecting confidence in their ability as a reviewer. Typical comments included:
I think I’m doing a good job of advising my peers on their outline. I suggested that while she was writing about the benefits of globalization for the economy, she could add some data to make her case more convincing.
Furthermore, eleven of these students mentioned the mutual benefits of giving and receiving peer feedback in comments such as ‘I become more critical because I learn from my peers’ essay and also consider the benefits and drawbacks of my own essay’, indicating improved awareness of one’s own writing through reading the essays of others.
Nevertheless, other comments revealed persistent challenges to students’ engagement in PR. The first challenge relates to developing sufficient competence (mentioned in fifteen out of forty-six essays), with typical comments including: ‘After a long discussion, I did not immediately correct my essay, which caused me to forget some useful comments later’, and ‘I can only evaluate the paper from the perspective of sentences but do not give feedback […] from the overall perspective’. Although these students felt they lacked the ability to fully take advantage of the PR process, the fact they knew in theory what they should be doing, namely formulating action points immediately after feedback, and evaluating peers’ writing from global perspectives, suggests that their competence could develop, given more time.
Regarding relatedness, twenty-nine of the forty-six essays mentioned the importance of communication between PR partners. These tended to stress the necessity of open communication with partners to effectively give and receive feedback, with comments such as: ‘Peer review requires the author to communicate with peers on comments so they can exchange opinions respectfully, while the final decision belongs to the author’. This indicates that students were negotiating meaning in the PR discussions to decide what advice to accept and how to act upon it. Meanwhile, eight of these essays contrasted communication in the PR process with the teacher-centred models of feedback in their previous educational experience: ‘In Chinese education, we don’t […] exchange ideas with peers. Peer feedback gave me a new way to acquire knowledge’.
Relating to autonomy, twenty-one essays referenced students’ intention to continue engaging with PR and apply what they learnt in their PSE training on their master’s programmes, with comments including ‘I will continue to rely on the peer review process to improve myself and to discover my own problems in my studies’. This suggests optimism that the level of autonomy necessary for continued engagement had been acquired. However, nine students suggested that they were yet to gain the required autonomy to continue to engage with PR independently during their master’s programmes as they still relied on a high degree of scaffolding from the teacher: ‘It will be very helpful for us if the teacher can make clear what specific comments we need to give before we try to do peer feedback by ourself’.
One persistent challenge was the influence of cultural factors, impacting both students’ perceived competence and relatedness. Twelve essays mentioned difficulties with giving or receiving peer feedback stemming from previous teacher-centred learning experiences: ‘My peers only give surface feedback […] comments from a teacher are more professional’. Students’ relatedness also seems to have been limited by persistent cultural obstacles such as unwillingness to provide negative feedback for fear of causing conflict, with one student noting, ‘I did not tell my peer of all the errors I found […] because I thought that if I told him all the mistakes, it would make him feel embarrassed’. Ten essays referenced peer feedback negatively affecting the feelings of partners.
Q2: What are the hindering factors for students’ engagement in autonomous peer review after the training programme?
Regarding perceived competence, students mentioned difficulties in giving effective peer feedback on their master’s courses due to the variation in writing genres and rules. Five out of the eight students mentioned that while they felt the PSE had given them competence to write and provide peer feedback on one type of essay, they had not expected to face such a range of different genres on their master’s programmes and felt they lacked the ability to deconstruct these genres sufficiently to be able to advise coursemates’ on their writing:
The PSE course helped me know some writing skills, but we don’t know how to apply them to […] a case study, a commentary, an interview […] the types are different.
Also, three other students mentioned inconsistencies in the standards applied to their writing as impeding their competence to provide effective peer feedback. One student gave the example of two professors on the same course having conflicting rules about allowing personal pronoun use in essays. Trying to remember what was acceptable to different professors made it hard to know what to seek in their own and in their coursemates’ essays.
Regarding relatedness, four students mentioned not feeling the same sense of belonging on their master’s courses that they had felt on their PSE and hence less impulse to share in the writing process together, with one student mentioning, ‘We need a team when we start to write an essay […] so we can talk [about] anything’. The main reason for this lack of relatedness seems to be the limited time on their master’s courses, making them focus only on completing and submitting their own work without engaging in peer feedback with their classmates. One student commented, ‘We have no time to exchange essays with each other […] if I finish my essay, I just want to upload my essay […], I have no time to exchange [with] my classmates’.
Regarding autonomy, all of the students admitted that the majority of the feedback on their master’s assignments came from teachers despite agreeing on the importance of continued peer feedback. Tellingly, five of the students commented on how the PSE course had provided a clear system to support PR, and were disappointed to find their master’s courses had no such similar system: ‘Most of the time we receive feedback from the teacher […] but I think […] it is very essential for us to receive students’ feedback’. Two of the students continued to express a preference for teachers organizing their PR sessions: ‘I think teachers [taking the] responsibility [to arrange] peer review will be much better than students’.
In summary, students’ responses to the PR training programme were generally positive, reporting improvements in their competence and relatedness. Following the training programme students reported a limited improvement in their engagement in autonomous peer review. An analysis of the ongoing challenges of students’ engagement in peer review with reference to influences at macro-, meso-, and microcultural levels is discussed in the next section.
This study sought to investigate the extent to which peer review training integrated into an eight-week PSE programme in a transnational university in China could facilitate students’ engagement in giving and receiving peer feedback on classmates’ writing, both on the PSE itself and moving forward onto their master’s programmes. This specific context presents an opportunity to address the macrocultural obstacles to PR, but also presents challenges at microcultural levels that need to be considered in the design and implementation of PR training.
The design and implementation of a PR training model was particularly important within the context of the PSE to address the cultural obstacles to engaging in PR likely to be experienced by Chinese students with no previous experience of studying in transnational/EMI environments. At a macrocultural level, Chinese students tend to share a strong cultural preference for teacher feedback over peer feedback (Alavi & Kaivanpanah, 2007). This is largely due to students’ previous teacher-centred academic experiences where feedback is regarded as solely the responsibility of teachers (Tsui & Ng, 2000; Zhao, 2014) as well as cultural aversion to criticizing classmates’ work (Carson & Nelson, 1996). However, the transnational context of XJTLU, with its ability to develop its own distinct educational models, provides a suitable mesocultural environment for mediating these macro-level challenges. The PR training model was therefore designed considering specific local needs. Results from reflective essays suggest that the training model was partially successful in overcoming these macrocultural challenges. Several comments showed that students appreciated moving away from the teacher-centred feedback practices of their previous learning and were overcoming the resistance to criticizing classmates’ work to openly share ideas and negotiate meaning with peers, which was seen as ‘a new way to acquire knowledge’. However, other comments showed that traditional attitudes were still prevalent, with some students remarking that ‘comments from a teacher are always more professional’ while others mentioned a persistent reluctance to provide negative feedback on peers’ writing for fear of ‘making him feel embarrassed’.
To further develop engagement with PR, we argue that: first, the eight-week training model might not be sufficient for developing learners’ autonomous PR. The length of the training was limited by the PSE programme design. In the previous study by Hu (2005), students’ engagement with peer feedback was dependent on embedding routines throughout the course over three years. Our study concludes that an eight-week course might be too short for normalizing the PR practice. In this sense, the EAP teachers and content lecturers can collaborate to design courses that continuously facilitate PR practice. Instead of giving teacher-centred feedback, content teachers can provide more opportunities for peer feedback, design writing tasks with greater consistency across different programmes, and introduce a system of ‘PR expert’ students from the PSE to demonstrate strategies for effectively conducting PR. This recommendation follows the Peer Advisors for Writing (PAW) programme effectively implemented by the Global Teaching Institute at Tokyo International University (2021).
Meanwhile, the PR training in the current study could have focused more on the types of collaboration. Sánchez-Naranjo’;s (2019) study shows that systematic PR training, together with effective interaction with peers’ texts, and conversations between writers and reviewers resulted in greater collaboration, which helped scaffold learning and therefore resulted in significant development in L2 writing (Nassaji & Swain, 2000). Mutch (2003) argues that both the content of feedback conversations and the way that feedback is produced and received may be seen as ‘social practices’, which bring together learners’ development toward autonomy and the instructor’s support. In the current study, students were paired by the teachers via online platform. To promote closer collaboration, teachers can design more diverse collaborative tasks, enabling students to work with different peers, and identify the peers with whom they could maintain continuous PR relations in the future.
Last, there is a need to investigate students’ previous experience with PR before designing a PR training programme. Mendonca and Johnson (1994) emphasized the importance of research into how previous learning experience may influence students’ interactions in PR activities and integration of the feedback. Connor and Asenavage (1994) also found that the two students in their research who were most receptive to peer feedback had experienced process-oriented collaborative writing previously. They further conclude that ‘students’ previous experience with collaborative activities may be a good indicator of how well they respond to and benefit from each other’s writing’ (p. 26). In our context, students showed various attitudes to PR. The entire training programme was pre-designed before the course due to administrative purposes. It might be useful to investigate and compare the learning experience and needs of selected students who do not share the unitary attitudes. This could provide insights for the future development of the current PR training programme.
This study investigated the extent to which peer review training integrated into a PSE programme in a transnational university in China could facilitate students’ engagement in PR both on the PSE and moving forward onto students’ master’s programmes.
Regarding RQ1 - is peer review training an effective pedagogical activity for students on an eight-week pre-sessional programme at a transnational university? - data gathered from reflective essays showed that the training model was partly successful in overcoming macro-level challenges commonly experienced by Chinese learners and was largely effective in supporting students to engage with peer feedback within the microculture of the PSE itself. However, regarding RQ2 - What are the hindering factors for students’ engagement in autonomous peer review after the training programme? - a focus group conducted six months later suggested that most of these positive effects were not carried forward onto students’ master’s courses. This is perhaps unsurprising given the findings of previous studies that PR only becomes a routine activity for students when it is deliberately embedded within the microculture of a particular course and continually reinforced by teachers. Despite addressing the importance of autonomous learning for postgraduate study and encouraging students to arrange their own PR sessions, this seems insufficient to equip students with the level of autonomy necessary to continue engaging with PR independently.
Regarding the research design, data collected from reflective essays and focus groups was analysed using the three elements of Deci and Ryan’s (1985) framework: competence, relatedness, and autonomy. This categorization of data may not capture the varied cultural practices found in a transnational university and the various microcultures students will encounter in specific courses and modules. Recommendations for future research could consider case-study methodology to examine the influences of culture at different scales. Further research towards developing students’ autonomy as peer reviewers may consider ways to develop the necessary digital literacy to embrace new technologies in conducting PR to overcome limitations of time and space, i.e., use of social media and online platforms as a means of building learning communities. Regarding the implications for practice and research, more training on transferability and collaboration between EAP teachers and master’s instructors is needed for PR to be normalized as a ‘culturally appropriate and legitimate pedagogical activity’ (Hu, 2019, p. 57) and embedded as routine practice across all microcultural levels.