Using Technology to Create Mentor-based, Peer-to-Peer Writing Communities

Using Technology to Create Mentor-based, Peer-to-Peer Writing Communities

Using Technology to Create Mentor-based, Peer-to-Peer Writing Communities



Jan 11, 2024

Jan 11, 2024

15 min. read

15 min. read

Self-efficacy based on substantive, academic outcomes is created when students learn to peer coach and mentor one another.

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The Importance of student-centered, peer-to-peer feedback

The essaypop system is not only a research-based and fundamentally sound writing methodology, it also is a social and interactive environment where students can have meaningful, real-time discussions about their own academic writing. As we continue to improve the platform, we consistently direct our designers and engineers to discover new ways to drive student interaction and improve the capabilities for providing peer-to-peer feedback. Enhancing organic collaboration is a key priority at essaypop.

The problem is that when students are asked to give other students feedback, they are often left to their own devices, and this results in commentary that often devolves into surface-level informality. We must focus on creating systematic ways to train and incentivize kids to provide one another with substantive feedback rooted in academic language. The essaypop Hive is the central engine for this interactive process. Remember, research shows that students who can provide substantive commentary to others strengthen their own metacognitive skills and become better writers themselves. Additionally, a strong social and emotional dynamic is created when students are empowered to coach and mentor one another; relationships based on strong academic outcomes are forged. Incidentally, high-functioning mentorship communities managed by effective educators become defacto tutoring environments where assistance is essentially crowdsourced.

How essaypop's Hive environment works

While students compose their writing (paragraphs, essays, personal narratives, stories, etc...) in the essaypop writing frames, they can, at any time, jump into the Hive to read the writing of other students, provided the teacher has set the activity up this way.

Students can be clustered by the teacher into randomized or customized groups where they interact much in the same way they might do so when their desks are placed together in the classroom. In the screenshot here, we see the teacher's view of one class within the Hive. This is where the teacher monitors and assesses student work and where they set up clusters or groups. The student view is identical to the teacher's except they are not able to set up groups. Students are only able to interact with the peers within their cluster. Of course, the cluster walls may be removed altogether for whole-group or even multi-class interactivity.

When a student's avatar is clicked, the writing is immediately seen in real-time (you will see words appear as the student is typing). Feedback and commentary can be left by the teacher and peers in real time, and these messages appear in the sidebar area as seen here.

Notice how anyone can click on any element (the hook, the thesis, etc...) and leave specific, pinpointed feedback on any of these elements. General feedback for the whole essay can be left as well. In the example below, we have a seventh-grade writer receiving feedback from classmates as well as a few 10th-grade guests (more on guests in the Hive later).

Real-time, peer-to-peer interaction is engaging and fun for students; the ultimate "gamification" if you will. Interest in the task and productivity are created as kids are drawn into a robust conversation about their writing. We have found that students react more attentively and positively to feedback from their peers than they do even from their teachers.

To learn more about the Hive, check out this video.

Essaypop scaffolds the feedback process for students.

Feedback Templates

Clearly, we can't expect all students to jump into the Hive prepared to give high-level, substantive feedback. Left to their own devices, students will write things like "great job!" and "Keep going!", which are encouraging, but not always actionable. So we've set up a comprehensive support system for them. It begins with an auto-commentary menu that provides students with feedback stems and phrases that allow them to begin their commentary with more academic wording than what they might otherwise employ. Take a look at the example below where a student is commenting on a peer's thesis statement.

Once students select a few stems, they can continue writing additional feedback in the dialogue box. The auto-commentary gives them that scaffolded "shove" or head start that they need to start leaving feedback that is meaningful and actionable. What's more, students begin to internalize these stems and start using them on their own, even when they are not using essaypop. The idea is to build within students that metacognitive framework that not only makes them better mentors but increases their awareness of their own strengths and weaknesses as writers.

View our comprehensive list of feedback templates

Essaypop empowers students with the ability to assess others using the language of the rubric.

We typically think of the scoring rubric as a tool reserved for the teacher, but why not allow students to provide feedback for their peers (and even themselves) using the academic language of the rubric? We've made it easy for teachers to set up rubric scoring so that specific or filtered elements can be selected for scoring (a tool designed to save teachers time). Meanwhile, students are also given the ability to score using the very same rubric elements. When students assess one another in this way, they naturally begin to internalize the academic language we wish them to learn and use. Of course, student scoring is separated from teacher scoring when the metrics are gathered. The setup is very simple as seen here.

When the teacher and the students go to the Hive and select the assessment view, the elements selected by the teacher show up ready to assess. Each element is supported by a component-specific rubric that can be quickly applied to a student's writing. The metrics derived from this scoring are divided into teacher scores and student scores. With practice and when guided by the teacher, students can be taught to routinely incorporate the language of the rubric when they consider the quality of the writing of their peers and their own writing as well.

To learn more about the essaypop assessment tool, take a look at this article.

The social nature of the Hive builds engagement.

Students we interviewed told us that connecting with peers is compelling, fun, and keeps them actively writing, even on more difficult papers, for longer periods of time. What’s more, students admit interactions are not just taking place during class, but are continuing after class and even into the evenings. Imagine, kids at night discussing Walt Whitman’s, “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” when they could be checking their Tik Tok feed instead! And this beyond-the-classroom interaction has proven to be taking place regardless of whether the students are in traditional-classroom, hybrid, or distance learning settings.

Teachers using essaypop and the Hive are reporting that increased student engagement is resulting in more completed papers, better classroom discussions, and an overall higher quality of writing. Ninth-grade ELA teacher, April Henney, from Wisconsin says, “The engagement level is infectious. This feels like what I had imagined classes would look like when I was getting my credential. They’re talking to each other the way they relate on social media, only they’re talking about literature; they’re talking about rhetoric, and they’re having fun doing it!”

See our engagement study

Essaypop is constantly looking for ways to drive and improve peer-to-peer feedback.

To give you a glimpse into the way we incorporate this philosophy into our platform design, take a look at the thinking behind our most recent project. This comes from one of our internal memos to our UX and development teams:

Key components of an effective feedback driver

  • Students must associate giving and receiving feedback with their success as writers.

  • Giving feedback should be seen as fun and engaging.

  • Giving substantive feedback and responding to feedback given should be rewarded.

  • Students should be gently reminded by the app that it’s time to give some feedback.

  • Students should be notified by the app as soon as they receive feedback.

  • The teacher should be able to build or customize the feedback experience they would like her students to have. Such customization would be optional.

  • Teachers should quickly be able to see who has provided the required amount of feedback and who has not.

  • The teacher should be able to set a deadline for the feedback to be completed.

  • The feedback driver should integrate with the commentary system we already have in place.

  • Students should receive targeted feedback templates, stems, and other scaffolding devices that guide them through the process of giving substantive feedback.

  • Feedback scaffolding devices should be specific to the element being discussed.

  • There should be opportunities for participants to provide written, scaled, and multiple-choice feedback (quick surveys).

How it looks

  • As students are working on an assignment, a reminder pops up, saying something like, “Your teacher is asking that you provide three bits of substantive feedback to a friend. Would you like to do that now or wait until a little later?” If the teacher has not set specific feedback requirements, pop-ups appear occasionally that say, “Would you like to provide some feedback for another writer? People love getting feedback!”

  • Another option would be to allow students who need help to post specific requests that then get distributed to the Hive. Other students could field these requests and receive rewards for responding.

  • If the student decides to go for it, they are taken to the Hive, where they may begin reading the essays of their peers and providing feedback. If they decide to wait, they will be reminded later.

  • When they click on an element, say the hook, they will be given a few options. They, of course, can simply opt to write feedback without scaffolding, or they can opt to use a template. The templates will offer a combination of yes/no, scale, and short response options.

  • The reminders will become more frequent as the deadline (if set) draws nearer.

  • Students who receive feedback will receive reminders to respond to the feedback, and we should probably have scaffolded templates for responding as well.

  • The key will be for each section to have plenty of very specific options for students to use when they go to provide feedback. This scaffolding will be above and beyond the current auto-commentary. I will sketch this out on paper for the thesis statement.

An example/thesis statement

A student has been cued by the app that now would be a good time to give some feedback to her peers. The teacher has indicated from the dashboard that he is requiring each student to provide two peers with feedback on the hook, the thesis statement, and at least one interpretation.

The student, who happens to be in the middle of her essay, can opt to go for it or do the feedback later. In this case, she decides to start giving feedback now. She goes to a peer’s essay in the Hive, reads the introduction, and decides to comment on the thesis statement first.

The teacher has required that students use a feedback template that appears in the conversation sidebar when the student giving the feedback clicks on the thesis statement. The template looks like this (It is essentially a form):

  • Does the thesis statement echo the prompt? Y/N

  • Is the thesis statement one to three sentences in length? Y/N

  • Does the thesis statement clearly state what the essay will be about? Y/N

  • If the answer is “no”, what would make the thesis statement more clear? SA

  • What else would you like to say about the thesis statement? SA

When the student has completed this feedback form, she clicks “done” and she can get back to her own writing. What’s nice about this is the process is clean and deliberate. It will also yield plenty of quantitative data via the yes-no, multiple-choice, and scaled answers. The short answers provide some organic specificity and can also be included in a data set or report.

This is just one way we are looking to drive the feedback process. Again, writing can be quite a lonely endeavor, and it’s one of the reasons many kids tend to dislike it. If we can build opportunities for kids to interact meaningfully, it will not only build skills, it will build engagement. Down the road, we can incorporate various AI assessments and responses or, more in line with our desire to keep the environment student-centered and organic, integrate responsive voice technology into the platform that connects students to other students or the teacher.

Scaling the mentorship community by inviting guests into the Hive

Once you've created an environment where students are willing and able to provide substantive and rubric-based feedback for one another, you can begin to expand the mentoring beyond the small-group dynamic. Just as you can cluster students into groups, you can uncluster groups so that a whole class of students or groups of classes can interact and collaborate with one another. Let's say, for example, an ELA teacher has five seventh-grade classes and a total of 150 students who are all working on a particular essay. The teacher can set it up so that all of these students can join forces and have dynamic conversations about the writing at hand. Using the auto-commentary feature and rubric scoring, the teacher can expect to receive a lot of help in the assessment process and a lot of scoring data as well. But this is only the beginning of how dynamic the Hive can become.

The essaypop platform was set up so that teachers can invite guests into the Hive environment. Who gets to be a guest in the Hive? Anyone really. The teacher can invite other students, including older students, the librarian, administrators, trusted parents, retired volunteers, anyone. These guests join the Hive by entering a teacher-issued guest code (no one's getting in without this), and they are able to access the auto-commentary, the rubrics, and leave feedback just as the teacher and the other students are able to. The point is to build and scale the mentor network and create a community of coaches and writers who can interact with one another regularly.

See essaypop founder, Michael Hicks's presentation on creating mentorship communities.

Mentorship communities provide substantial relief for teachers.

A fortuitous by-product of the social engagement that happens in the Hive has been a sort of crowdsourcing phenomenon that has significantly lightened the assessment and feedback burden for teachers, especially teachers who have taken the time to show their students how to provide substantive feedback to one another. If the teacher is the only one giving feedback to 100 or more students, kids are lucky to get a single useful comment about their writing, but if those same students are trained and empowered to give feedback to one another, then each student ends up with dozens of comments on a single paper. What we’ve learned is when teachers train their own students to provide commentary and advice in a way that reinforces best practices and is informed by rubric-based criteria, they are able to create “volunteer armies” of mentors and coaches, recruited from their own ranks.

Case Study

We recently conducted a case study at a grade seven through twelve, junior/senior high school in Los Angeles that uses essaypop for all grade levels. The school’s seventh-grade ELA team has developed a curricular map for getting their students from basic-paragraph writing, through short-form essay writing, and finally into the mastery of multiple-paragraph papers. The team wanted to bring in the school's sophomores, juniors, and seniors to assist the seventh graders.

The school is an International Baccalaureate school, and the high-school students are required to log a significant amount of community service hours in order to satisfy their graduation requirements. One of the prescribed ways to meet this requirement is to assist younger students with their studies. The team determined that they would recruit their former students, now in high school, to assist their current seventh graders with their short-response essays. After all, who better to provide guidance than students who had already wrestled with the essays and methods when they were younger.

They reached out to the high school students via the school’s LMS, and the signups were impressive; they were able to attract over 100 interested students from 9th through 12th grade, and these volunteers would mentor approximately 250 seventh graders. Using the essaypop guest feature, the teachers invited these mentors into the Hive and assigned them to designated clusters that included four seventh-graders each

In a Zoom session, the mentors were given an overview of the expectations and requirements needed to earn community service credit. They were coached on how to interact with the younger students, and presented with the “do’s and don’ts”. They were advised on how often they should jump in and give feedback, and they were given reference documents that included concepts to focus on and sample phrasing to use when providing commentary. They were essentially coached to become coaches. “They were so excited to share their expertise”, noted one of the teachers on the team. We certainly didn’t expect this many mentors to sign up and for them to be this gung-ho.”

It was also explained to the mentors that their current English teachers had been informed of their community service commitment and that they would be receiving extra credit in their English classes for their efforts if they followed through. The teachers reported that this orientation session not only set clear expectations but also created a sense of camaraderie and anticipation for the task at hand. Some admitted that they were surprised by some of the kids who had signed up. One teacher explained, “There was a boy who I had in my class two years earlier who never completed a single assignment. He failed both semesters in seventh grade. So I was actually a little concerned when I saw his name on the mentor list. Of course, he turned out to be one of my best and most active coaches; the kids loved him. It’s as though he wanted to come back and prove something, and, boy, did he!”

As soon as the older students were assigned and trained, they immediately began digging into the seventh graders’ multiple-paragraph essays — a week was given for the whole endeavor. As the days passed, teachers gave frequent reminders and encouragement to the mentors through the school’s LMS, keeping them on track and on task. The seventh graders also were given frequent reminders to respond to their coaches in kind to keep the discussion lively and interactive. It should be noted that one part of the rubric assessment for the essay-writers included how well the writers gave, received, and responded to feedback.

One wrinkle the team added to the mix was the implementation of an “honoring system” whereby the seventh graders were allowed to honor one classmate and one older coach who they felt were particularly helpful and consistent with their feedback. Students didn’t have to honor anyone but could do so if they felt someone deserved it. Classmates that were honored received a bump on their overall assignment grade, while coaches were rewarded with additional community service credit. It turned out to be a very motivating incentive, so much so that our product engineers are working to build this "honoring capacity" into the platform. Honoring one another — What a great way to integrate a spirit of soulful encouragement into the platform!

What we learned

Once the essays were completed and assessed, all the participants were interviewed, and the results were quite encouraging. Most of the seventh graders suggested that the mentor/mentee relationship was fun and engaging; many admitted that they went back to their essays often to see if they had any new feedback and that this usually caused them to write and revise more. When they were asked if they thought that the coaching helped them write better papers, most agreed that it did. One young lady suggested that “I thought having older students read my writing would be embarrassing, but it wasn’t. It was actually fun. I would do it again for sure”

The upperclassman mentors indicated that not only did they appreciate receiving their community service credit and extra credit in their English classes, but they truly felt that they were performing a valuable service. They seemed to take pride in their ability to help their younger peers. Many indicated that they thought the experience was fun and asked if they would like to participate again, 96% said that they would. Many also indicated that the exercise helped them reflect on their own abilities as writers. According to one 10th grade mentor, “This experience really helped me to relive my own seventh-grade experience, which seems so long ago now. It reminded me of how vulnerable I was and how inexperienced, but it also forced me to really think about some of my own tendencies as a writer. I honestly think this experience has helped me with my own writing. Another mentor put it more simply: “Man, I wish I had this kind of help when I was in seventh grade.”

The team of teachers that engaged in the study also had a lot of positive things to say about the experience. One of the biggest revelations was simply the amount of feedback that the students were receiving from each other and from their coaches. “I could never give that much feedback on a single essay to over a hundred students,” said one teacher. “It would be impossible. Plus, the feedback that was being given was quite impressive. That actually surprised me a little.” Another member of the team said, “This is just a huge relief. I kill myself trying to give everybody feedback, and I still am barely able to provide the help that these kids need. Having a bunch of “mini-mes” is a really great feeling, and the coaches did such a good job.”

The teachers also agreed that more students actually finished their multiple-paragraph papers and that the overall quality of writing was much improved compared to past assignments. The whole team agreed that they would like to do this again, having learned so much from the first round. They also are in talks with the teachers from the local elementary schools, who are also using essaypop, and they’re offering to have their seventh-graders mentor the fifth and sixth graders from the feeder schools. The mentoring current travels in both directions it seems.


Now that essaypop is being used widely throughout the nation, we are gratified to learn that the Hive, the social and interactive heart of the system, is helping teachers and students as we had imagined it would. We love that students are learning to become more proficient providers of feedback and that this, in turn, is taking pressure off of teachers. And, of course, we are enthused by the discovery that essaypop is becoming a conduit for coaching and mentorship relationships all over the country. With essaypop and particularly the Hive, we believe we’ve built an educational software that saves teachers precious time, drives meaningful peer-to-peer interaction, and creates communities that create meaningful, academic outcomes that are based on compassion, selflessness, and service.