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Being a layperson in pharmacology

My identities in life are many – a staff member at McGill’s Teaching and Learning Services, a mother–daughter-sister-wife, a former waitress-house painter-birthday party animator, etc. However, thanks to Prof. Terry Hébert in Pharmacology, I can now add “lay person” to the list.  Last week, Prof. Hébert invited me and a group of other non-pharmacology types to read student papers and provide comments.

The twist is that the assigned work in this 500 level course is not the typical term paper, lit review or annotated bibliography that you might expect. Instead, Prof. Hébert asks his students to read recently published articles from scientific journals like Nature and Cell, and to rewrite them as articles for the public – like something you might read in the New York Times. Prof. Hébert, after grading these articles, hands them over to me and the other “lay people” and charges us with providing feedback from a non-specialist’s point of view. The purpose of the exercise is for students to practice communicating science to the public – an extremely important skill and one that is sorely lacking in the general media. This assignment is a fantastic opportunity for students to see how important their scientific background is and to better understand some of the ways they can use their knowledge to make a difference.

I tackled my job with great enthusiasm, delving into the student articles, ready to learn something new.  However, as I started reading, I couldn’t help feeling the stress that I know many students feel when assigned peer feedback assignments. Circling in my head were questions like: What if just don’t get it? What if I say something stupid?  How can I avoid hurting people’s feelings? Will my feedback be useful or am I just wasting my time?

In the end, I did manage to overcome my unease and write some comments that proved at least moderately helpful. When I visited the class with three other lay people, I was impressed by the students’ graciousness and willingness to help us understand some of the more difficult concepts.  Overall, the experience was rewarding and fun.   I work mostly with faculty, and it is a rare treat to interact with students and see their commitment to learning.  I also learned many new facts: did you know zebrafish can regenerate their hearts? I didn’t but I have a new-found respect for scientists seeking to treat human heart failure by investigating this phenomenon.

Still, the whole process made me wonder about the way peer feedback is often used in classrooms.  Just as I questioned my ability to evaluate these students’ papers, I know many students feel uncomfortable judging each other’s work. How can they be expected to provide a critical and constructive perspective when they are just learning the fundamentals themselves? Even an upper level undergraduate is still a disciplinary novice.

For professors, the allure of integrating peer feedback into the classroom is strong: writing is a crucial skill for students to develop and much of the research suggests that peer learning and assessment can be quite effective for developing critical thinking, communication, lifelong learning, and collaborative skills. However, research also shows that there are problems with student-to-student feedback: the quality may be uneven, and validity and reliability may be limited.

So what can be done to use peer feedback in ways that are most helpful for students and not overly burdensome for faculty? I looked to the literature on peer review and found some intriguing responses in the work of authors like Nilson and Walvoord. According to these authors, asking students to make observations about one another’s work might be more effective than asking them to make judgements. Typically, profs who use peer feedback, ask their students to answer questions such as:

  • Is the central idea clear throughout the paper?
  • Is sufficient background provided?
  • How logical is the organization of the paper?

These types of questions demand that students understand how knowledge is presented in the discipline and to comment on the quality of argumentation.  In essence, students need to operate as experts in the field – no easy task, not even for graduate students.  Nilson suggests an alternative: ask students to reflect on their reading of the paper, to describe their experience and identify key elements such as the main points and evidence. In this approach, the reader does not critique but observes, and the professor can encourage this by providing guiding questions such as:

  • What one or two adjectives would you choose to describe the title of the paper?
  • What do you think is the thesis of the paper? Paraphrase it below.
  • List the main points of the paper.
  • What are the writer’s justifications (readings, logic, evidence, etc.) for taking the positions that he or she does?

I can immediately see the application of these types of questions to the pharmacology assignment. What if my task had been structured around questions like: What is the discovery in this article? Who made it? Why is it important? Had I seen my role more as a reader than an evaluator, I may have embraced the job even more, feeling qualified to comment on my understanding without needing to judge the quality of the work or the logic of the explanation.

It’s also possible that this type of approach is more helpful to student writers. When they read their peer’s feedback, they can learn what it’s like to have a real audience, and  decide how to reformulate the writing to better express their ideas — as long as there are opportunities built in for rewrites, this could be very helpful.

At the end of the day, I felt honoured to be invited to take part in this exercise. I could see all the thought and care that went into the design of an alternative pedagogical strategy such as this one, and I admired how students stepped up to take risks and share their work with strangers. This type of assignment makes it clear how much undergraduates can contribute when given the opportunity.

Thank you Prof. Hébert and students for opening the classroom door and inviting in the lay people  – I hope to visit again!


  • Nilson, L.B. (Winter 2003) Improving Student Peer Feedback. College Teaching, Vol. 51, No. 1:34-38.
  • Walvoord, B.E., and Anderson V.J. (1998). Effective grading: A tool for learning and assessment. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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