A number of instructors at McGill have been integrating peer assessment (PA) in their courses and have generously shared some of their reflections on the experience.
Rhonda Amsel teaches Statistics for Experimental Design (PSYCH 305) in the Faculty of Science. During a conversation about her experience with PA, she shared how she implemented it for the first time in a 100-student summer course. Rhonda also offered suggestions for instructors who are considering implementing PA in their classes.
Q: How did you introduce PA to your students?
I explained to them very transparently that I had never done PA in a course before. I thought that PA might help students more easily see what I was looking for when I assessed them and see how other people answered the same questions, for clarity.
When you look at your own work, it’s very hard to see where you are being unclear; it’s much more obvious when you look at someone else’s work.
I also asked students to monitor if they were actually learning anything, so they were engaged as they tried to figure out whether the PA was helping them.
I started in the summer because it’s easier to try something out with a hundred students than with three hundred.
Because I wanted buy-in from the students, I explained what the purpose of PA is in terms of benefits to them. I think that students buy in easily when we try new learning strategies because they know that such strategies are aimed at getting them to succeed in the course.
Q: How do you use PA in your course?
The course has three assignments and two exams. The purpose of the assignments is for students to keep up with the work and force them to prepare for the exams. I started by trying PA with the first assignment. This assignment calls for very brief answers, some small calculations, and a tiny report. For the PA, the assignment was submitted twice, first as a draft for feedback from peers, and then as a final version that the TA and I graded. Students had to bring a draft of their assignment to class on the due date. I collected the assignments from the front half of the class and my TA collected the assignments from the back half of the class. Then, we switched assignments and redistributed them to the students so that they received an assignment that belonged to a peer not sitting near them. It took five minutes to switch the assignments. We had the students put an identifying number and their initials on the assignment so that it wasn’t clear whose assignment they had gotten. I prepared a cover sheet that had detailed criteria to look for, along with questions for peer assessors to address, such as: “Is this present and correct?” “Is this idea in the report?” “Is it clearly expressed?” In class, students used the cover sheet to respond “yes” or “no” to each question as we reviewed the assignment. And any “no” would require a resubmission to me and the TA. There was a place at the bottom of the form for peer assessors to put their own identifying number and initials because I wanted the peer assessors to be graded a little bit, too. The peer assessors each received half a point for completing the peer assessment.
After the students had provided feedback, my TA collected the assignments. She took them into the hallway, marked that the assignments had been received, checked for indications of lack of clarity (because the peer assessors noted when an assessment criterion was unclear to them) and then clarified, as necessary. Finally, she indicated whether resubmission was necessary. The TA also used the students’ initials to mark a last name on the assignment so that we could quickly hand back the assignments at the end of the class with no overnight turnaround. It was fast, which is nice in the summer when courses are short.
Q: What did you and the students think about the PA experience?
During the peer assessment activity, we heard from the students themselves as they tried to clarify points and as they brought up typical problems. To me, it’s that discussion that has value: it’s being in the class and hearing other students ask questions and getting something out of that, and hearing the responses, and then carrying on the discussion from there. It was exactly what I had hoped. I think this made it very clear to them that certain things are not of concern and certain things are of concern – the difference between a calculation mistake and a conceptual mistake, for instance. And the exams were very good at the end of the course.
We also had a discussion about the PA experience itself. It’s always interesting to see how the students react and it’s more helpful to learn about their reactions during the course rather than after. I had the class vote on whether or not to do another PA assignment. I asked, “How many of you really would rather not go on with it?” Only two students raised concerns about their ability to assess peers, and these concerns were easily assuaged. So, it was agreed we would try it again because the students felt that it had value. In anticipation of the next assignment, we talked about what problems they had had doing PA and how the activity could be amended for the next time, such as what we could fix on the cover sheet.
Q: What would you suggest to an instructor interested in trying PA for the first time?
Be familiar with your course: I wouldn’t try PA the first time teaching a course. I would teach it several times with more traditional assessment methods so that I could think about where PA would have the most use.
After doing the PA, ask the students what you can do better the next time, or even if you should do it a next time. It’s really a matter of assessing whether PA is having the desired impact. And who better to tell you than the people who are experiencing it?
Want to explore PA further? Join us on May 25, 2017 for a workshop on Designing Successful Peer Assessments.
Join the conversation! What experiences have you had with PA in your courses?