If used effectively, peer assessment – a formative assessment strategy that encourages students to comment on the work of their peers – can improve students’ understanding of success criteria, help them to become more engaged in learning and develop their interpersonal skills (Black et al., 2003; Topping, 2017), as well as potentially even reducing teacher workload. Conversely, however, peer assessment can hinder students’ learning if poor-quality, insensitive or unhelpful peer feedback is exchanged, and may strain relationships between learners (Topping, 2017, 2018). The purpose of this article is to examine how these potential issues can be avoided and how peer assessment can be used as an effective learning strategy.
Training and guiding students to give effective written peer feedback
Guiding students to give effective feedback is important, since they often find it challenging ‘to think of their work in terms of a set of goals’ (Black et al., 2003, p. 49). During peer assessment, learning objectives need to be explicit, and there needs to be clarity around how these can be successfully met (Boon, 2015; Topping, 2018). If students are familiar with success criteria, they can use these to evaluate how far their partner has moved towards accomplishing a learning goal (Min, 2005, 2006).
Feedback should be task-involving, focusing on key elements of the success criteria that have been met and giving details about how the work might be enhanced (Kamins and Dweck, 1999). Guiding students to provide task-involving feedback is more likely to motivate them to learn and make subsequent improvements in their work (Kamins and Dweck, 1999), so research has therefore concentrated on the importance of training learners to provide effective task-involving feedback (e.g. Berg, 1999; Min, 2005, 2006). Several research studies have highlighted the important role teachers play in modelling how to identify strengths and weaknesses in a peer’s work (e.g. Berg, 1999; Min, 2005, 2006). These studies were related to higher education but may still apply to students in primary and secondary schools.
A study focusing on Year 6 children in a primary school also found that training in peer assessment skills helped students to provide focused task-involving feedback (Boon, 2015). The teacher in the study modelled the peer assessment process and gave children time to practise peer assessment on a fictional student, using checklists to scaffold written comments (Min, 2005, 2006; Gielen et al., 2010). These checklists enabled learners to move beyond comments such as ‘You’re really good at this – keep it up!’ to those that referred to success criteria. Whilst interesting, these findings have to be viewed cautiously due to a small sample size and an absence of controls.
Whilst ensuring that relevant and useful feedback is given, it is vital that students make good use of this too (Gielen et al., 2010). In a study focusing on elementary school peer assessment, children who used peer feedback made more progress in writing than those who had not used it (Olson, 1990). Boon’s action research primary school study (2016a) explored this in more depth and found that students made better use of feedback if it was relevant, if time was given for discussion between peers to clarify misunderstandings, and if students were encouraged to reflect on how the feedback had been used. For example, students were encouraged to say and give examples of how they had used elements of feedback to improve the quality of an information text.
Developing students’ verbal peer feedback
While much research has concentrated on developing written peer feedback (Topping, 2018), students’ use of verbal feedback is also important, particularly in areas such as mathematics, where peer assessment might take place through dialogue rather than a written outcome. Kollar and Fischer (2010, p. 345) suggest that during peer assessment, ‘interactive exchange may be beneficial’ for learning.
Such interaction during peer assessment might involve using dialogue to explore written and verbal comments, and working collaboratively to enhance the products of peer assessment (Kollar and Fischer, 2010). However, Kollar and Fischer’s argument (2010) assumes that students already have the necessary interpersonal skills to interact effectively during peer assessment. This assumption does not sit comfortably with research suggesting that younger students often struggle to work collaboratively (Mercer et al., 2004; Mercer and Sams, 2006). In these cases, peer assessment may become an unmanageable task for students, leading them to use talk in ways that do not support their learning (Mercer et al., 2004; Mercer and Sams, 2006). One such type of dialogue identified by Mercer (2000) has been characterised as disputational talk, where students rigidly adhere to their point of view in discussion and are unwilling to accept alternative viewpoints. A second kind of dialogue that might emerge is cumulative talk, where peers agree with one another’s assertions in an uncritical manner, which again may not be helpful, as students need to be able to constructively examine each other’s work.
However, a third type of dialogue that might be more useful is exploratory talk. This involves hypothesising and reasoning; supporting assertions with good examples; questioning one another; and reaching an agreement based on fruitful discussion (Mercer and Sams, 2006). Students will need guidance in order to use this kind of dialogue rather than disputational or cumulative talk (Mercer et al., 2004). One method of ensuring that exploratory talk takes place is through thinking together, where students are guided to use a set of ground rules for effective communication (Mercer et al., 2004). This involves students asking one another effective questions; reasoning effectively; reaching agreements based on critical discussion and support; and encouraging one another throughout different activities (Mercer et al., 2004; Mercer and Sams, 2006). These ground rules encourage exploratory talk, which shares some features of effective peer assessment. For instance, both exploratory talk and peer assessment involve hypothesising and reasoning (Topping, 2017, 2018).
Black (2007) argues that developing exploratory talk through thinking together is likely to be useful for formative peer assessment because it involves pupils who can reason effectively through discussion (Black, 2007). This argument was supported by Boon’s (2016b) study of effective peer assessment processes in primary schools. This study found that exploratory talk was useful for peer assessment, given that it involves students critiquing ideas effectively, a necessary dimension of effective peer feedback. Boon (2016b) also found that following thinking together, children were able to communicate in ways that supported effective peer assessment. For example, children who had previously engaged in arguments and disputes were able to use talk during a maths activity to assess the ongoing ideas of their partner and drive learning forwards. Having considered how teachers might use peer assessment as a learning strategy to improve the quality of written and verbal feedback, it is now time to offer some recommendations for professional practice.
Peer assessment can be a powerful learning strategy if students are adequately prepared for it and have been guided to develop key interpersonal skills (Black et al., 2003; Boon 2016a, 2016b; Topping, 2017, 2018). For peer assessment to have an impact on learning, students need:
- training to peer assess effectively, which includes using prompts, checklists of criteria, teacher modelling of how to assess work and regular practice
- to be given time to discuss and reflect on feedback given to improve work
- guidance on working collaboratively so that they are able to use talk in ways that enable them to hypothesise, reason and critique.
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