Information Sheet # 9

February 9, 1988


Evelyn Benda, Assistant Professor of Nursing Education

Since World War II nurse educators have recognized the need for learning experiences that foster the oral and written communication skills of nursing students. Our students must learn many dimensions of communication: concise and accurate reporting of situations; defending a controversial position in an articulate manner; and perhaps most importantly, critically appraising the value of others' intentions, works, or documents. John Bean's discussion of his procedure for allowing students to evaluate other students' writing (reprinted in the Writing Center's Information Sheet #5) has prompted me to describe an approach used in my Nursing Research class for accomplishing the same end: peer critiques of student research projects.

Students in Nursing Research must design and conduct a pilot investigational study. In groups of 3-4, the students complete the following tasks:

  • identify a research problem in nursing;
  • develop a written, documented theoretical framework pertinent to the research problem;
  • plan an appropriate research design;
  • collect data on a limited number of subjects;
  • describe and interpret the findings;
  • state the implications of the study's results;
  • recommend future research directions.

This assignment accomplishes a number of writing as well as nursing practice goals. It assists the student in development of writing skills, increases familiarity with a problem or approach to nursing practice, assists the student in gaining group process and management skills, and teaches students through first hand experience about the process of scientific investigation. Recently, however, I became dissatisfied with accomplishing only these ends. I decided to try an approach enabling students to read each others' work and respond to these efforts. The means for accomplishing this objective is students producing a written critique of each others' studies.

The central concept associated with a critique is the term "criticism," which means the careful judgment about the worth of a piece of work. On this subject of criticism, Henry James has observed that "to criticize is to appreciate, to appropriate, to take intellectual possession, to establish in fine relation the criticized thing and to make it one's own." The 18th-century English critic Joseph Addison has offered this additional perspective:

A true critic ought to dwell rather upon excellencies than imperfection, to discover the concealed beauties of a writer and communicate to the world such things as are worth their observation.

Students can learn to adopt such an attitude by practicing an objective, systematic analysis and discussion of the strengths, limitations, and general worth of their peers research. A strong critique reflects a penetrating analysis of a study in which judicious and constructive comments have been made about the student's work.

The students begin by critiquing a published piece of research. This allows them to gain comfort and skill with the criteria expected in the second critique. After they have received my feedback, as well as a grade for each component of the first critique, they can turn to the more threatening and demanding assignments, critiquing the work of 3-4 peers.

The students are evaluated on their thoroughness in pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of a peer's study in the following areas:

1.      Clarity and relevance to nursing of the stated problem.

2.      Researchability and formulation of the problem.

3.      Adequacy, relevance, and quality of the literature review for developing the theoretical framework.

4.      Appropriateness, correctness and completeness of the hypotheses, definition of terms, and identification of extraneous variables.

5.      Appropriate match of purpose, design, and methods.

6.      Suitability of the sampling procedure and the sample.

7.      Correctness and appropriateness of the analytic procedures.

8.      Clarity in presentation of findings.

9.      Style, form, grammar, punctuation.

I also have expectations of the student research critic. We discuss these expectations in class before completing the first critique. These expectations are formulated as guidelines used for giving feedback both in classroom critiques as well as in actual nursing practice.

A.     An attitude of objectivity must prevail throughout the critical assessment of the study. The critic must focus upon the study itself, rather than social or personal factors, past associations with the researcher, or other subjective factors.

B.     The research critic adopts an advisory role, maintaining an attitude of genuine interest in helping the researching enhance his or her research skills and knowledge. A manually healthy interchange of ideas diminishes the threat felt by the writer.

C.     All criticism should be constructive. The critic should offer thoughtful comments given in such a way that they stimulate the researcher to use the suggestions and motivate continued work on the study. Rather than merely pointing out that the literature review is too brief or fragmented, the critic should suggest how to make it more comprehensive or flow in a more organized fashion.

D.     The critic is expected to assess the strengths, weaknesses, and other general features of the research study and to offer supportive statements to document this analysis.

E.      Finally, the critic is expected to make summary appraisals and recommendations about the study in order to help the researcher refine his thinking and perfect his research skills. The summaries and recommendations should be logically consistent with the critic's analysis and assessment of the components of the study. If the course were a two-semester course, the researchers might be expected to incorporate some of the suggestions and feedback to improve the study; however, with our current curriculum such a sequence is impossible.

One of the most frustrating things of the peer critique process is the logistics of implementing the critique procedure. Of necessity the investigational study takes all term. Therefore, the critiques occur at the end of the term. To facilitate the process, students are required to hand in as many copies of the investigational study as there are students in the group. Subsequently, each student receives copies of the other group members' papers to critique. Students then have several days to write the critiques in narrative form, encompassing the above-stated criteria, which are available in the course syllabus. Ideally we would then have peer critique sharing with the investigational study group as well as an opportunity for peer discussion. However, the term ends about two weeks too soon to allow for this.

Before the critiques are done, I have assigned a grade to the research investigations according to criteria spelled out in the syllabus. The students are assured that the critiques of a peer's study do not affect a peer's grade. Students tend to inflate the grades of their classmates when they are asked to assign actual grades or a numerical indication of a grade to a peer's work.

In conclusion, the primary goal of this assignment is to help the students develop the art of constructive criticism, a very necessary skill in nursing practice. The assignment also allows the students to compare and contrast a study done by their peers with their own. This often makes strengths and weaknesses of their own study more evident. In addition, peer critiques provide for student reading of peer's projects, projects which are very relevant reading for nursing students who will be held accountable for patient care in a few short months. Finally, the peer critique functions to give the students peer feedback for refinement, clarification, and improvement of a research study they may decide to replicate at a later time.


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