Getting feedback from readers outside of the classroom setting is not only a great source of motivation; it can help students learn to anticipate the needs and expectations of readers, and to revise their writing to make it more effective for the intended audience. By participating in the Reader Project, members of the broader Duke community can play a direct role in helping our students develop the communication and reasoning skills that are so important for their success in both professional and civic life.
How do I volunteer?
First, you must get on our volunteer mailing list! Just before the beginning of the semester, we’ll tell you what courses we are working with for the term. Then, you can sign up for one or more using your personal link (we send it with that email). Next, we get the instructors to help us match you with the right student, and we send you all the details!
How will I interact with the student?
The specific details vary according to the course, but typically this is what to expect with your student:
- Meet your student: Readers and students will have a 20-30 minute “Introductory meeting” to start off. In this meeting, readers and students will get to know each other and have a chance to discuss the student’s project. The readers will get a sense of the kind of writing the students will be doing and what the students are trying to accomplish in the paper, while the students will begin to get a sense of the audience for their writing.
- Receive first draft: Once the student has written a coherent draft of their paper, they will e-mail the draft to you for your feedback. (For information about the kind of feedback we’d like readers to provide, click here.)
- Meet to discuss feedback: For most courses, you would provide students with your feedback on the draft prior to the meeting, then simply discuss your experience as a reader of the draft. We will provide you with some questions from the instructor specifically targeted to typical student writing in the course, around which to focus your comments.
- (Optional) Feedback on revised draft: The student will take your comments into account in revising the paper (along with any other feedback they get) and then e-mail you the new draft. The two of you will meet once more to discuss the revised draft.
Here are some more suggestions for giving feedback and priorities for interactions:
Leave the work in the student’s hands. In general, editing tools such as “Track Changes” are good for collaborative writing but less-well suited to helping students become better writers, since students can be tempted to passively accept your suggested changes rather than deciding for themselves which changes to make. Students will learn more if you can help them recognize where changes are needed, rather than doing the changing for them.
Instead of telling the student what to do, describe your reactions to what you read. Let the student know where you can follow the ideas and where you get lost; where you’re engaged and where you’re bored, confused, or frustrated; where you find an argument compelling and where you’re skeptical. It’s fine to do this without suggesting specific changes to address those issues; in fact, that’s what we expect you to do most of the time. That said, there will be many occasions where students can benefit from your advice.
Give advice where it seems warranted, but try to do so in terms of principles students can apply in the future, rather than as only fixes to specific problems in their paper. For example, instead of this: “You should insert a sentence here that says…,” try this: “When I read this kind of paper, I want to see an explicit statement of the question or problem that will be addressed so I can understand where the paper is headed. Is that something you might do here?”
Let students know what’s working! While you will want to let students know about difficulties you have trying to make sense of their drafts, you should also let them know what’s good. These comments will encourage them to keep doing the things they’re doing well. Even brief comments such as “This is clear” or “OK, I’m following you here” or “That’s pretty convincing” give students valuable information.
Respect and Privacy
Many times the students are a bit nervous about sharing works-in-progress. Always keep your student’s work private, and be kind as they learn this skill of receiving feedback before they have a finished product.
At the beginning of the semester, check the page for the course you’re reading for and note the dates listed on the calendar. You will also be provided with the contact information for your student partner, so that you can contact each other. For your part, we expect you to remain in appropriate contact with your partner and fulfill the meetings and interactions that we have outlined (3-5 hours for the semester). That said, a majority of both readers and students have reported in surveys that they would have liked to have more interaction during the term. While you should feel no obligation to do so, you are welcome to offer to have additional meetings with the student, or to give feedback on additional drafts or other assignments for the course for which you would be an appropriate reader.
Details will vary by course, but here’s a general outline of what is expected: Depending on the assignment, you should plan to have an introductory meeting and to provide feedback on on or more drafts. You will be provided with detailed instructions for this process as well as any needed technical support. After you provide your first feedback, the student will revise the paper in preparation for a second meeting to discuss the revised version. After that meeting the student prepares a final draft.