Tutorials and Extras

How and Why to Blind Review Student Writing, with Dropbox File Requests

Jack Dougherty

Photo by LightningFades (Flickr CC-BY)

Photo by LightningFades (Flickr CC-BY)

At our small liberal arts college, whenever my students are working on a writing assignment on the same theme, I often ask them to submit it in blind-review format. My pedagogical goal is to judge their written expression on its own two feet, without being swayed by my biased impressions of students’ abilities from our class discussions and personal interactions. In their end-of-semester course evaluations, several students have praised this method for giving them what they believe is a fairer opportunity to succeed in my class. Also, as their instructor, I’m always (pleasantly) surprised after completing name-blind evaluations of student essays and matching up the results to the class roster. Sometimes it’s the most extroverted talkers in class who have the most difficulty assembling a coherent argument on paper. At other time, it’s the quietest student in class, the one who hasn’t made a peep in several sessions, who demonstrates how much deep thinking is going on behind the scenes in their writing. If you’ve never done a blind-review of student writing, try it and see if it challenges your pre-conceptions of student abilities.

At my small liberal arts college, where my classes range between 10 to 30 students, blind review can be an appropriate tool to create some intellectual distance in an academically intimate setting. Unlike the athletic field, where coaches and umpires have separate roles, the classroom requires me to play both parts: offer guidance to students on how to improve, and also evaluate their outcomes.[1] Adopting a blind-review approach, especially on writing assignments, allows me to momentarily divide my roles as guide and evaluator, which in my experience has freed me to do a better job with both parts. (By contrast, if you’re a teacher who lectures to classrooms with 100 or more students, or make absolutely no effort to learn anyone’s names during the semester, it’s already a fairly anonymous learning experience for them.)

People who know me as an advocate of open peer review scholarship may wonder why I advocate for blind review in the classroom. In the open peer review model, both commissioned experts and general readers post online comments on a draft manuscript, using their full names. Two scholarly books I co-edited with this open model, Writing History in the Digital Age and Web Writing, both received around 1,000 comments from 70 readers over a 6-8 week period. In both cases, many of the authors did not previously know the readers, unlike stereotypically incestuous academic subfields. A major argument in favor of open peer review in the humanities is to recognize the unseen labor of peer review, and to give credit for quality feedback on a draft, whether from senior scholars or graduate students, by attaching names to their work.[2] That’s a far different problem from what I encounter in my classroom, where I’m paid to guide and evaluate students’ work.

Of course, blind-review doesn’t make sense for all classroom writing assignments. For any individualized project, such as a long-term research topic selected by students, who meet one-on-one with me to discuss proposals or drafts, there’s no point in pretending that I do not know the author when evaluating the final draft. In these named writing assignments, especially if they culminate a semester’s work, I sometimes split up my role of coach and umpire by calling on outside guest evaluators (such as recent alumni, community partners, or students or faculty from other colleges).

Years ago, when I started blind reviews of student writing, their papers were—literally—on paper, and the process was fairly easy to administer. I instructed all students to omit their names from the front of the essay (a hard habit to break) and instead, to write it in small print on the back side of the last page. This low-tech system allowed me to quickly check off each student on the roster who submitted the paper on time, then flip them over and scramble them for blind review. When my evaluations were done, I flipped the papers back to record the names and the grades.

Nowadays I prefer that my students submit their writing digitally, for a variety of reasons. My typed comments are faster for me to create and clearer for students to understand than my handwritten ones. Also, digital papers are easier to archive on my hard drive for future reference. Furthermore, I learned to schedule writing deadlines a day or two before or after class sessions, rather than at the beginning of class, which drained student energy away from the assigned readings and content that I had planned to cover that day.

But the Internet screwed up my blind-review system. More precisely, the learning management system software on my campus (we use Moodle) was not designed to handle blind-review, as far as I can tell, because it insists on digitally stamping student files with their name and time received so that nothing gets lost in the system. The technology was built to make sure that every submission has a username, which makes sense for traditional schooling, but not for blind review. If you know a workaround (either low- or high-tech) for conducting blind-review on Moodle or related systems, please share it in the comments below.

Given my preference for openly sharing syllabi on the web and receiving digital student assignments via my personal Dropbox service, I searched for compatible solutions. Previously, I used FileStork (which shut down in 2012), and I’ve also used the JotForm “Send to Dropbox” feature (which works nicely, but is limited to 100 free submissions per month). View my former JotForm screenshot.[3]

In June 2015, Dropbox announced their new File Request feature, which allows users to create a subfolder and invite anyone to upload material via a web link.[4] Fortunately, Dropbox File Requests are easy to set up, and I can adapt them for blind review of student work with one extra instruction. Also, my students strongly prefer upload services that display a “your file has been uploaded successfully” confirmation message, which Dropbox File Requests delivers, whether or not students subscribe to their service.

1) Sign up for a free Dropbox.com 2GB account (or pay an annual subscription for a much larger account for automatic backups and file sharing, which serves my needs). Download the Dropbox tool for your Mac/Windows operating system to sync your documents to the cloud.

2) In your browser, log into your Dropbox.com web account, and click File Requests in the side menu. Name the type of files you are requesting (for example, “Blind-Review-Essays” and locate where the uploaded files should be stored in your Dropbox (for example, inside a folder designated for your class). The default setting places them inside a new “File Requests” folder in your Dropbox account.

Go to your Dropbox.com web page to create a File Request

Go to your Dropbox.com web page to create a File Request

3) On the next screen, copy the Dropbox link to your new File Request folder.

Copy the link to the Dropbox File Request

Copy the link to the Dropbox File Request

4) Paste the link into a web page that your students can easily access. (My syllabus is on a public WordPress site, but this also should work for password-protected LMS sites, such as Moodle). If you want to receive essays for blind review, add this wording on your web page:

For blind review essays, insert your student ID in place of your first name (and leave your last name blank). Add your real email (which I do not see) to receive confirmation.

When students click the link, they will see the following image:

What students see when they click on your File Request link

What students see when they click on your File Request link

5) When users click the “Choose files” button, the screen will look similar to the one below (minus the red reminder, which I added here to remind you, the instructor, about the recommended wording for your web page, described above).

Remember to add the reminder (in red) to your web page.

Remember to add the reminder (in red) to your web page.

That’s the simplest solution I’ve found so far. But if you know an easier and/or clearer way to receive blind-review student essays via Dropbox or a similar service, please post a comment below.

Usually I ask students to upload their essays using their officially designated ID number, but a friendlier solution is to ask them to insert their birthdates (though we occasionally bump into the  “greater than 23 people in the room” birthday paradox, which always makes a good statistical side-lesson).[5] When using birthdates for blind review, my students compile a list to be placed in a sealed envelope until my evaluations are done.

The blind-review exercise also offers a great opportunity to quickly teach students how to remove their names (and other identifying information) from a Microsoft Word document, using the File > Properties menu, as shown below:

For blind review, always erase your identity in the File Properties.

For blind review, always erase your identity in the File Properties.

How to cite:

Jack Dougherty, “How and Why to Blind Review Student Writing, with Dropbox File Requests” in Web Writing: Why and How for Liberal Arts Teaching and Learning (University of Michigan Press/Trinity College ePress edition, 2015), http://epress.trincoll.edu/webwriting/chapter/how-and-why-to-blind-review-student-writing/.


  1.  On the problem of writing for teachers as "coaches" without an authentic audience, see Peter Elbow, Writing With Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process (Oxford University Press, USA, 1981), p. 223.
  2. On open peer review, see Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy (MediaCommons Press, 2009), http://mcpress.media-commons.org/plannedobsolescence/, which was later published by NYU Press in 2011.
  3. Author's former JotForm screenshot, http://epress.trincoll.edu/webwriting/?attachment_id=1246.
  4. “Easily Collect Photos, Docs, and More with File Requests,” Dropbox Blog, June 17, 2015, https://blogs.dropbox.com/dropbox/2015/06/introducing-file-requests/.
  5. “Birthday Problem,” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, June 27, 2015, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Birthday_problem&oldid=668887660.

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