Improving student engagement with assessment and feedback through peer review

Professor Helen Parish, School of Humanities
h.l.parish@reading.ac.uk

Year of activity: 2014-15

Overview

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The project investigated recent research and practice in peer assessment and feedback in order to implement a peer assessment model for use within History, and develop a framework for the adoption of said model in cognate disciplines where evaluation of substantial text-based assignments is an important part of assessment.

Objectives

  • Present students with well-managed opportunities to engage in feedback and assessment and learn from it.
  • Present staff with access to tried and tested models for implementation that can be used and tailored across disciplines.

Context

The importance of increasing the impact of assessment in feedback and learning is recognised by the University’s teaching and learning enhancement priorities, and is evident in the ‘Engage in Assessment’ and ‘Engage in Feedback’ materials.  The requirement to pursue an agenda for feedback is also highlighted by the expectations of employers that graduates of the University of Reading will be able to assess and evaluate the work of others, by comments on feedback made by University of Reading students in the National Student Survey, and by discussions with potential students on Open Days.

Implementation

There were five stages to the project:

  1. A literature search on the topic and detailed engagement with recent scholarship, undertaken by the Principal Investigator.
  2. A ‘competitor analysis’, undertaken by a research assistant, looking at the extent that peer feedback is present on Humanities curricula at other institutions.
  3. Development of a model for the trial of peer assessment informed by the previous two stages.
  4. Implementation of this model as a ‘pilot project’ in the Department of History.
  5. Obtaining student feedback on the process and reflection by the Principal Investigator.

The feedback gained during the early stages of the project revealed that students were reluctant to allow their work to be reviewed by their peers, even when anonymised.   This necessitated the envisaged model to be altered, whereby the written work being ‘peer reviewed’ was either from previous cohorts within the Department or alternative sources.

Once the pilot project was developed, there were three stages:

  1. Development of an understanding of marking and assessment criteria. Students read the assessment criteria of their module, and were then tasked with rewriting these in their own words.
  2. Applying these criteria to written work. Students then read a sample essay (not taken from the group), and with reference to the marking criteria, were asked to give a mark to the essay, with a summary of reasons they had come to this judgment.  This was followed by a discussion of the written feedback provided.
  3. Focus group and project review.  It was intended that students would meet to talk about the project, and more general issues to do with assessment and feedback, in the presence of an experienced observer external to the department.

Impact

One of the principal benefits of the project was that students became more aware of the marking criteria by which their assignments were assessed, as although they found these clear, few students had actually taken the time to read these before. An additional benefit was that the activity helped develop students’ academic confidence, as they were impelled to adopt a critical attitude to writing within scholarship, and gained experience of promoting their point of view to their peers.

Reflections

Feedback from questionnaires suggested that students enjoyed the project; that they now had a better understanding of assessment and feedback; that the project had been helpful with the preparation of their own written work; and that they were now more confident in the assessment of their own work prior to submission.

The reluctance of students to submit their own work to review by their peers meant that there was a less direct link between the peer feedback provided and the specific assignment for each module.  By using work from previous cohorts or alternative sources, however, it was possible to get students to engage more willingly with the process of peer review.

The main disappointment was that it proved impossible to gather a large enough group of students to participate in the focus group stage of the project.  This may have been due to the proposed scheduling of the focus groups at a time when students had recently participated in a Departmental Periodic Review and submitted their final coursework of the academic year.  Nevertheless, valuable feedback on the pilot was provided through questionnaires and verbal communication.

It was interesting to observe that students held broad spectrum of ideas about what constituted good work, arising from a lack of understanding about the criteria against which work is marked. From this perspective, the project was valuable, as students were familiarised with the marking criteria and how these applied to written pieces Students were able to look ‘behind the scenes’ at the marking process, with student applying the marking criteria as individuals, but then needing to decide as a group upon a final mark for pieces they were reviewing.

Follow up

Following the pilot project, the use of peer review to engage students in assessment and feedback has been used by other members of staff within the Department of History, with similar success. Other than the specific pieces of work and criteria used for peer review purposes, there was nothing within this project that was specific to the Department of History or School of Humanities, and so this activity could easily be adapted for use in other Departments and Schools across the University.

The peer review approach has been successfully applied within the Department of History to student presentations in seminars. As student presentations are more ‘in the moment’ and designed with a peer audience in mind, students have not expressed the same reticence to have their peers review their work, and those presenting have appreciated receiving immediate feedback.

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