Problem Description Peer Review Tips
In reviewing peers’ work, it is important to strike a balance between offering broad comments about the
paper’s content and specific comments about the writing style. Sometimes, focusing too much attention
to issues of grammar and word choice can divert attention away from the overall content of a paper.
Similarly, too much attention on the overall content can sometimes prevent the reviewer from making
important comments about the writing clarity. When approaching the peer review, balance your
attention between the overall content and specific writing issues.
It is often helpful to praise what works well in the draft before addressing what’s missing. So, try to
begin your comments with a positive note. For example, you might say, “Your paper clearly describes
the division in the parliament of Northern Ireland. However, you bring up a lot of background about the
broader conflict (for example, the British colonization of Ireland) that isn’t directly relevant. It would be
helpful to give more information about the different parties in the N Ireland parliament. What
constituents do these parties represent? Why do people support certain parties?”
It can be helpful to read the paper first for content. Try to understand the larger issues first. The
problem description should very clearly accomplish the following:
Define a specific problem related to the conflict case.
The writer should NOT identify the
question of statehood as the problem. For example, the writer’s problem should not be the
question of whether Palestine or Abkhazia should be an independent state. Similarly, the writer
should not address whether Northern Ireland should be part of the United Kingdom or the
Republic of Ireland or whether Nagorno Karabakh should be part of Azerbaijan or Armenia.
Describe the current context of the problem.
It should be clear what caused the particular
problem and how the problem is related to the greater conflict. For example, a student writing
about the economic consequences of the Gaza blockade should clearly describe why there is a
blockade on Gaza and how the Gaza blockade relates to the broader conflict between Israelis
The writer should NOT use the problem description section to describe the history of
the conflict. For example, a writer describing the Gaza blockade should not include
details about the colonial roots of the Israel-Palestine conflict. The details about the
broader conflict should directly relate to the problem at hand.
Convince the reader that the problem requires attention.
The writer should clearly describe the
consequences of the problem in order to convince the reader that the problem needs to be
addressed. For example, a student writing about polarization in the N Ireland parliament should
explain how the polarization affects the potential for violence to resume in N Ireland.
Build a framework from which the policy options can be argued.
The policy option section will
follow the problem description section. Each of the policy options will aim to resolve the same
particular problem, but they will aim to solve the problem in different ways. By the end of the
problem description section, it should be very clear which single problem the policy options will
aim to resolve.
After reading the draft, respond to the following questions:
What is the specific problem addressed?
What caused the particular problem and how does it relate to the broader conflict case?
Is there background information that’s not directly relevant to the problem at hand? What other
information do I need to understand the problem instead of the background details presented?
Why is the problem important? What are the consequences of the problem?
After I finish reading the problem description, I’ll read the policy options section. Do I know
what problem each of the policy options will tackle?
On the whole, what are the greatest strengths of the paper?
Where should the writer focus his/her energies on revising the problem description?
If you don’t know the answer to any of these questions, then let the writer know what’s unclear. Be sure
that your comments are specific. So, don’t just say, “I don’t know what particular problem is addressed.”
Instead, say, “Your paper talks a lot about the violence in the conflict, but it would be helpful to focus
your description more on a particular issue. What specific problem would you like to address regarding
violence? You address perpetual violations to ceasefire agreements, the sale of weapons, the use of land
mines and other weapons that allow indiscriminate killing, and lack of transparency in investigating
human rights abuses. Which one would you like to focus on in the paper?”
Once you offer broad comments about the paper’s content, then re-read the paper and offer some
suggestions about the writing clarity. You can note the following:
Instances of poor word choice
Complicated sentence structure
Sentences that are too long
Paragraphs that are too long
Paragraphs that lack a coherent flow from one sentence to the next and a clear topic sentence
Comments about writing style are best made in the text (as opposed to at the end of the text). So, don’t
leave a comment at the end indicating that there are many grammatical errors in the paper; instead,
make a note in the text pointing to specific grammatical errors. In your note, explain “There’s an issue
with subject-verb agreement here.” Alternatively, you can correct the grammar error.
Because this is a writing class, it’s important for the writing to be very clear and concise. So, please be
sure to devote enough time and attention to commenting on your peer’s writing style. Writing is
difficult. Everyone can improve their writing. So, your review should have some comments about
shortcomings in your peer’s writing.
You should submit both your in-text comments about your peer’s writing style and your answers to
the questions at the top of the second page to your peer through Canvas and to the Canvas Peer
Review assignment folder. Thus, you should submit two documents to two places