Using Lectio Divina as Assessment

Teachers of all stripes who assign peer review or peer assessments often complain that students don't know how to give helpful feedback, if they give much at all. Even when we structure feedback by providing rubrics or other heuristics to guide student assessors and what they offer their colleagues, student feedback is often less than helpful, or perceived as such by writers. To complicate matters further, many students just don't trust their peers for a variety of good reasons, (e.g., their peers aren't grading them, their peers aren't experts in writing or the topic of the class, etc.). I have found, however, that there are practices that students can do that provide helpful feedback, and that can encourage a deeper attention to that feedback by writers.

Good Feedback Starts with Good Reading
Every act of judgment must proceed from an act of reading or listening. One measure of the thoughtfulness and helpfulness of any judgment of a text is the quality of the practice of reading and listening that produced that judgment. So to ask students to make judgments, or provide feedback, on their colleagues' drafts, no matter the kinds of judgments, means that we should provide students with ways to read.

I don't mean that we help students develop a purpose for reading a colleague's text when offering feedback. Yes, this should be an important first step in developing a feedback activity with students. It helps determine the goal of the reading (on the part of the assessor) and the application of any feedback (on the part of the writer). Feedback might be geared toward generating and revising ideas, or reconsidering key dimensions of writing (see my last post on using dimensions vs. standards in writing), or arranging and structuring ideas (organization), or proofing. But these are not ways of reading. They are stances readers take when reading texts, not methods to do so. Good reading starts with good methods for reading, so good feedback really starts with good methods for reading.

One Method for Reading: Lectio Divina
Too often, especially in the college classroom, we simply assign reading or assign feedback activities. We ask students to read and give their colleagues feedback on their drafts. If we are thoughtful, we give them some guidelines for what we expect the product of their feedback to take (such as questions to answer, issues to discuss, and minimum word counts of the text of the feedback), but we don't always offer many methods for reading the text. We simply assume that students will know how to read their colleagues' drafts for the purposes of the feedback we want them to provide, that they have a repertoire of reading practices available to them. We assume they know how to read carefully. For instance, two very good and robust online technologies for peer review, Eli Review and My Reviewers, focus most of their attention on the feedback students provide -- that is, the form and content of the feedback. You can tell this by where the technologies place their attention, particularly in the data available to teachers and students. Neither can, for instance, keep track of students' reading time. How long are students spending reading a colleague's draft? Do they spend more time reading later drafts in the semester? Time can be an indicator of the quality of reading method.

We also assume that the most difficult part of any feedback activity is the articulation of the feedback itself, the ideas and opinions expressed and their expression in words. So if we spend any time on helping students with feedback methods, it's usually (in my experience) with the nature and form of the feedback. Do we want them to ask questions or respond to ideas or make only observations? Do we want them to spend some time saying where the good stuff is, then say where the things that need improving are? But we don't spend much time, if any, on how students actually read a draft.

What if students changed their focus in feedback activities to the labor of reading or the practice of reading? This is what I suggest.

One of the most ancient forms of careful, close, and meaningFUL reading practices is the practice of lectio divina, which means "divine reading." Originally in monastic and other Christian traditions, it was a practice of slow reading of short bits of scripture, with pauses and time to reflect  and meditate, allowing God's Word to touch the reader, or not. Typically, there are four parts or aspects to lectio divina:

  • lectio: reading or listening
  • meditatio: meditation or reflection
  • oratio: prayer
  • contemplatio: contemplation
Each part of the practice is saturated in silence in order to allow God's Word to come to the person, since often, it is said, that God speaks to people in a "still, small voice" (I Kings 19:12). There's a good description of this practice offered by St. Andrew's Abbey in Valerymo, CA, as well as a short description of it by the Order of the Carmelites, which offers two short video explanations of the practice as well. And for a discussion of it as an academic practice and not a spiritual one, Daniel Barbezat and Mirabai Bush's chapter 6 in Contemplative Practices in Higher Education is a good resource. I don't want to focus on the spiritual dimensions of this practice for obvious reasons, but I do think it is important to know that the practice was and still is a spiritual one, one that was meant to allow an experience with God without placing one's own purpose or intentions onto the text of the Bible. God's Word dictates to us meaning and next steps, not the other way around, goes the logic. This purposeless reading can be helpful to students in feedback activities, if translated correctly.

Reading without intention -- or rather, reading that allows intention to come from the text, not the reader -- which seems contrary to what I mentioned above about determining a purpose for feedback activities, is what makes lectio divina potentially powerful and useful to students as a method for reading to give feedback to peers. Why? Because if we let our judgments come from the intentions of the text, or at least our perceived intentions of the text, then students have a better chance at reading colleagues' drafts on their own terms, not placing too many expectations and values of their own onto it, and realizing that they have such expectations and values that automatically get placed onto texts when they read. This latter distinction is most useful and a good way to help students reflect later upon the feedback they receive from peers.

But lectio divina also offers a method for how to get students to experience diverse voices and ideas from colleagues, resisting the need or impulse to judge first, or to correct. This leaves only one purpose left that makes sense (in my view): to read for your colleague's sake. That is, I want to argue that if done right, lectio divina can give students a way to read with more compassion, from a stance of listening, not of judging, which ironically, I believe, is a more powerful and helpful stance for offering feedback. When we know we are being listen to carefully, we listen back carefully. When we think and feel that the other person just wants to hear himself talk or just wants to tell you what he thinks, then we are less inclined to listen carefully.

A Sample Feedback Activity
One way to use lectio divina as a method for students' readings of their peers' drafts is to give them the process for reading, making reading the first step in the feedback activity, giving it priority (not the feedback text itself), maybe even asking students to only read first without writing any feedback. Pausing between reading a peer's draft and writing feedback to the peer about it is critical. Remember, lectio divina required lots of pauses, silence, and reflection between steps or parts of it. This takes time, and so allow for the time, even if it is over a night or weekend. Here's one method that uses lectio divina that could be modified for use in a classroom, written as directions to students:

  • Read your colleague's entire paper quickly (do not mark or take any notes).
  • After you finish, pause for 2-3 minutes. Just let the paper's ideas sink in or drift in your head. Don't worry about order or what you want to say about it or to the writer. Just let the paper's impression sit with you. 
  • Take 3-4 minutes and write down your first impressions of the paper. What does this paper make you think about? Why?
  • Now, read the paper again more carefully, but this time, pause during your reading at the end of every page (so if the paper is 3 pages, you will pause a total of 3 times). 
  • When you pause at the end of each page, take 3-4 minutes and write your thoughts to the writer. This will be a short paragraph (maybe 100-150 words) in which you freewrite what you hear and see the writer saying on that page. Try to address these two questions each time: 
    • What is the main idea you hear the writer expressing on this page?
    • What are you expecting as a reader at this point for the writer to discuss? Why?
  • Repeat this reading, pausing, and writing until you finish the draft. 
  • Compile your paragraphs into one document, addressed to the writer. 

This process or method of reading can be modified or changed, but the important parts are the frequent pauses and writings that help the reader slow down and pay attention to the text. Notice also that the questions begin with observations. What does this reader hear or see on the page? When I give such instructions to my students, I make sure that we talk carefully about why we don't want to jump quickly to judgment, that we first want to make observations, and that often just doing that can be very helpful to a writer, if it is done in detailed ways. We also talk about how often time gives us answers or insights, that often we cannot and should not rush our thoughts or ideas, so the pauses are important. Just sit between papers for 30-60 seconds before you begin writing. It is amazing what 60 seconds can offer you.

Other versions of this practice can be even simpler. For instance, I've had students read a draft or a text in class, then we pause after each paragraph, and I asks students to write down one word or phrase that pops up into their heads at that moment. It might be a word that characterizes what they just heard/read, or a word from the text itself. We then quickly go around and just say our word or phrase aloud. No comments. No questions. We just listen to the bare words with lots of silence around them. Then we read another paragraph, and do it again. When we finish, I ask them to reflect upon their list of words, the text, the impression of other words they heard, etc. It's a pretty enlightening practice that uses the silence to call attention to words, which then lead to a discussion that can be judgment- or assessment-based.

Similar reading methods can be used in writing groups, when students are to get together and talk about their feedback to writers. In those activities, I usually focus students' reading on their assessment documents, the feedback as text. So it is the feedback texts or letters to writers that get the lectio divina treatment in writing groups. Since everyone in the group has read the draft begin discussed, it seems what's really at stake is how each reader read the text. Lectio divina offers a method for writing groups to focus on the text of feedback as an entry into the practices of reading by readers. The discussion becomes one about how we read and came to judgments, not which judgments are right about a text, or what to do next in the text, or what the writer should do in revisions. Those are questions the writer must decide, not readers. So discussions about feedback end up being ones about reading and reader assumptions that can deeply inform writers when they take home the feedback and begin processing next steps and revision.

No matter how you use lectio divina, it calls attention to the labor of reading. It doesn't let students take for granted the practice of reading, instead it helps students listen for the still quiet voice within their colleagues' drafts, and reflect back to writers that voice in compassionate ways, ways that say, first and foremost, "I am listening to you. What are you trying to tell me?"