Notable Notes: Usability Tests vs. Peer Review

All, Notable, Teaching, Writing

I have decided that next semester I am going to abandon my existing peer review workshop strategy in favor of usability testing, because I think shaking up the way my students think about peer review will be very beneficial. Too many students bring negative baggage related to bad peer review experiences in their past and, as a result, too many fail to understand the benefits of the peer review process extend both ways. I still believe in the powerful benefits of peer review to provide additional models for the writer as well as increased audience awareness, but I think we can realize these benefits from conducting usability tests without the negative baggage of the peer review. Of course, students will need to be introduced to usability testing – which is not something I typically due in my first-year seminar and composition classes – but my students are up to the challenge as I have already managed to use paper prototyping without too much difficulty. I know that others have successfully deployed usability testing in their writing classes although I had difficulty locating articles or blog posts about the idea, so if you know of any don’t hesitate to share them!

This is an idea I’ve contemplated before, but haven’t remembered to implement the change. I do introduce my professional writing students to usability testing and they find it such an useful exercise I always think I need to find a way to use it with my other students. I think one of the great benefits of replacing peer review with usability testing is that it will shift the burden to the writer and make the process much easier for the reviewer. I also think that pushing writers through the actual usability test process, complete with designing the test and creating an usability report after, will generate more thoughtful reflection and better revision as a result.

I am currently torn between encouraging the use of a read-and-locate test or think-aloud protocol method for these peer review usability tests. I think it would be tremendously useful for students to contemplate the questions they will use for their test and this could easily fit in with our existing practice of collaboratively creating our scoring guide for each assignment. However, the think-aloud protocol would give students unfiltered responses to their writing which can be a powerful learning tool.

I am very excited about the idea of requiring student writers to generate an usability report following the test as this will make my process for grading workshop much easier, but, more important, it will require that students reflect on their findings and share their conclusions about what they have learned as well as their plans to respond to these findings and conclusions. This piece has been missing in my past workshop work and I think it can be tremendously beneficial to the writer and help me to learn more about their process.

Jonathan Bush and Leah A. Zuidema’s article “Professional Writing in the English Classroom: Let’s Get Real: Using Usability to Connect Writers, Readers, and Texts” offers a lot of useful information about why and how to use usability in the writing classroom.

Are you interested in learning more about the pedagogy of usability? Check out this article by Felicia Chong reviewing selected technical communication textbooks, pedagogical and landmark texts, and online course syllabi and descriptions.

Have you ever considered replacing peer review with usability testing? What advantages do you see for using usability testing in a writing class?

Image by Aaron Fulkerson

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