Troubleshooting peer assessment

Students discussing peer assessment in a groupAlthough the learning benefits of using peer assessment are well documented, its use does raise occasional questions, for example, what if the students argue that it's your job to assess and not theirs? What if students all give one another top marks and fail to implement assessment criteria effectively? The points below may help you to help you deal with these and other troublesome issues that may arise when using peer assessment:

What if students cheat?

The reliability of peer assessment has long been a key concern, and has attracted a fair amount of pedagogic research. Concerns often surround students colluding to mark each others work highly, competitors marking low to boost their own positions, or individuals seeking to settle scores from their social lives through unfair marking. While not unfounded, the research has generally shown that reliability of peer assessment is good particularly where marking criteria are clear, assessment is anonymous and staff moderated, and students have had a degree of training1. If concerns about reliability remain, then the best approach may be to use peer assessment in a purely formative capacity.

What if my students say that marking is my job and not theirs?

Considering students pay fees for their university education this question is commonplace. One way to tackle it is to set out your reasons for doing peer assessment from the outset. Explain that use of peer assessment can help to improve their learning and so potentially boost their grades, as well as equipping them with the skills to continue to do better throughout their course. Peer assessment may well help to reduce your marking workload, but it's important to point out that this can provide you with the opportunity to formatively assess students' work more often throughout the course, again helping them to achieve better grades. Employability is a major concern for students, so giving some real-world examples of where the skills that peer assessment specifically can develop may also help to address students' concerns.2

Won't students be afraid to give low marks to a fellow student in case they're given low marks in return?

By ensuring that the assessment criteria you're using are clearly set out and understood by your students, any marks that are awarded should be entirely justifiable. Coupling any marking with feedback relating back to the assessment criteria may also help to alleviate any sense of victimisation. Making the process double anonymous by photocopying papers to remove any identifying features and ensuring that students do not know who has marked their paper can help to alleviate concerns and reduce risk. Moderation by your or your colleagues should be as light touch as possible, as if students believe that their work will eventually be staff marked anyway, they may be less likely to engage with the peer marking process.

What if my students don't have the level of knowledge or skills to assess one another's work?

It is only with support and opportunities to practice that your students can develop the skills required to become effective assessors. As long as you get the preparation right, which includes teaching them what a good and poor assignment looks like, helping them to get a full understanding of what the assessment criteria mean, and ensuring that the process by which they should come to their conclusions is transparent, there should be little room for misunderstanding. While students may lack specialist knowledge with clear criteria they should be able to make a qualified decision on the quality of their peers work. Again, aggregating multiple scores for a single piece of work will help to ensure that there aren't any outlying results. What is more, students that repeatedly do peer assessment get better at it3.

I don't enjoy marking, so won't my students feel the same?

Probably, yes. In many ways your students will no doubt have the same feelings towards marking as you do, but what they will invariably lack is experience and confidence in marking. There will also be some students for whom peer-assessment is a real educational cultural shift, so it's important to be aware of groups in which this may lead to tension and anxiety. Your students may also be embarrassed to comment on the work of their peers, so it's important for you to help create a working environment in which your students are equipped with the skills to provide one another with constructive feedback. You can help your students feel more comfortable with peer-marking by giving them opportunities to assess one another's work in risk-free situations, e.g. where there are no marks associated with a piece of work. At the end of the day preparation is the key to successful implementation of peer-assessment - explain the assessment and the associated marking criteria and why you're using peer-assessment (what are the learning benefits for your students?) and how you will ensure a fair and transparent assessment system throughout. A useful summary of problems and solutions associated with peer-assessment can be found in Falchikov3.

References

  1. Bostock, S. (2000). Student peer assessment. http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/assets/documents/resources/ resourcedatabase/id422_student_peer_assessment.pdf [9th August 2011]
  2. Hughes, I. E. (2001) But isn't this what you're paid for? The pros and cons of peer- and self-assessment. Planet, 2, 20-23.
  3. Falchikov, N. (2005). Improving Assessment Through Student Involvement: Practical solutions for aiding learning in higher and further education. Abingdon. RoutledgeFalmer.

 

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