What’s the point of peer feedback?

"Peer involvement in assessment processes should be more than just grading peers’ work and comparing the scores with those of the tutor." (Liu & Carless, 2006, p.282)

Assessment and feedback are complex concepts, and they become even more so when you add peers into the mix. While there are many different terms to describe how students can be engaged in feedback processes, our recent work with a feedback tool has focused on peer review (where students construct feedback commentary on other students’ work (Nicol, Thomson & Breslin, 2014)) and peer assessment (where students grade the work or performance of other students according to specified criteria (Falchikov, 2001 as cited in Liu & Carless, 2006) and may or may not provide commentary).

Our first instinct might be to start using peer feedback in our teaching by introducing a peer assessment activity where students provide grades to one another as a part of the marking process. However, choosing to outsource’ marking to students as assessors can be ineffective, time-consuming and undermine cooperation (Boud, 2000; Liu & Carless, 2006). Students can also feel uncomfortable awarding and being awarded grades by someone they don’t feel is actually qualified to do so (Liu & Carless, 2006).

Piloting the tool this semester, the comments from students certainly seemed to confirm that peer assessment involving the provision of grades alone was not very “helpful” as it did not allow them to make judgements about performance or give them the information they required to improve. Rather, peer review was a crucial aspect, as specific and detailed comments helped to ‘pinpoint’ areas for development. Having multiple reviewers allowed for different perspectives and the ability to work through contradictory feedback. A significant motivation for including peer review and assessment in teaching is an increase in assessment transparency, however, students who allocated and received grades alone tended to question their arbitrary nature. Perhaps this is because the feedback comments allow them to engage in critical reflection on quality, standards and learning (Nicol, Thomson & Breslin, 2014) rather than simply focus on acceptance or rejection of grades.

There is an argument that the greatest value of peer review and assessment activity for students is in the act of providing feedback and engaging in conversations about assessment. When students critically review the work of peers, they make comparisons between their own work, the work of their peers, and the assessment criteria to build an understanding of quality. By producing feedback for their peers, students can find that they themselves need less feedback, and are able to develop objectivity about applying standards, improving their ability to reflect on their own work.

Peer feedback is not a transaction or a marking process, but a mechanism for students to develop capability in understanding, interrogating and applying criteria and standards. Rather than focusing on peer assessment (grading), asking students to give grades and feedback comments together could have more impact than grading alone (though some evidence suggests this may not be the case (Wiliam, 2018)). If only one element of peer involvement can be provided, it may be worth questioning if it is actually the feedback commentary that has the greater impact on the student. Perhaps the point of peer review is not so much judging one another's work as opening up a dialogue about what we think we are evaluating, and what quality looks like.

Monash Education Innovation is piloting a suite of tools called FeedbackFruits to support assessment, feedback and interactivity in Semester 2. FeedbackFruits allows students to share their work, give and receive feedback and grades, and gives a platform for educators to provide feedback and allow for student interaction. 

For more information, and to get involved, see the FeedbackFruits Guide.

See our guide on Peer Review and Assessment.


References

Li, L., Liu, X., & Zhou, Y. (2012). Give and take: A re‐analysis of assessor and assessee's roles in technology‐facilitated peer assessment. British Journal of Educational Technology, 43(3), 376–384. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8535.2011.01180.x

Nicol, D., Thomson, A., & Breslin, C. (2014). Rethinking feedback practices in higher education: a peer review perspective. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 39(1), 102–122. https://doi.org/10.1080/02602938.2013.795518

Liu, N. & Carless, D. (2006) Peer feedback: the learning element of peer assessment, Teaching in Higher Education, 11:3, 279-290, DOI: 10.1080/13562510600680582

Lu, J. & Law, N. (2011) Online peer assessment: effects of cognitive and affective feedback, Instructional Science (2012) 40:257–275 DOI 10.1007/s11251-011-9177-2

Wiliam, D. (2018) Embedded Formative Assessment (2nd ed) Bloomington, Indiana: Solution Tree Press