Peer assessment for sustained engagement in the writing process


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.

Barry Eidlin teaches Sociological Inquiry (SOCI 211) in the Faculty of Arts. In a conversation about his experience implementing PA, he shared his rationale for using PA, some thoughts about the PA technology he used, and he offered suggestions for instructors who are considering implementing PA in their classes.  

Barry-Eidlin-PA-photo.jpgCan you describe your PA assignment? 

In Sociological Inquiry, students develop a research proposal over the course of the semester, which happens in three steps: a preliminary research proposal, a complete first draft of the research proposal, and then the final version of the research proposal. The first two steps are peer assessed using a software program called Peerceptiv; the TAs and I grade the last step by hand.

Peerceptiv, software specifically designed to support implementing PA when many students are involved, also has important pedagogical benefits: students learn to see writing as a process, and get much more feedback on their work than they would if only the TAs and I were providing feedback. While the interface took some getting used to, Peerceptiv made it possible for my 120 students to receive individual, detailed feedback on their writing throughout the semester, something that wouldn’t have been possible for me to do alone – there’s simply not enough time.

Students provide feedback on three peers’ work and receive feedback from three peers, during each of the first two steps. In their peer feedback, students provide quantitative feedback (numerical ratings from 1-7) and qualitative feedback (written comments) on three different dimensions, or categories, of the assignment: the research question, competing explanations, and hypotheses. I give them a detailed grading rubric that describes these.

Why do you use PA?

I started using PA because I wanted students to grapple in-depth with the core ideas in my classes. These ideas are not well-suited to a multiple-choice exam form of evaluation. Using PA allows students to develop a research proposal in stages over the course of the semester in a large lecture class, via thoughtful assignments that get students more deeply engaged.

I didn’t want a final paper at the end without any sort of evaluation along the way, where students might just throw something together at the last minute. I wanted sustained engagement over the course of the semester, and the PA activity and software gave me a way to do that.

Working on an assignment over time is probably a better way of engaging with the material, and the three stages force students to spread out the workload, so I hope it reduces their end of semester stress levels.

I also thought that at a pedagogical level, it was important to expose students to other people’s writing process, in the sense that most undergrads typically encounter only two forms of writing: their own jumbled mess of ideas that they struggle through as they’re coming up with their own assignments, and the highly polished, revised, peer reviewed work that they read in their classes. They don’t immediately see anything connecting the two. And so it’s hard for them to understand that the polished writing they encounter in their classes started off as a jumbled mess of ideas.

Having students do PA exposes them to the idea of writing as a process—they see concrete examples, and it can help them see that they’re not alone in working through the writing process.

What would you suggest to an instructor interested in trying PA in their course for the first time?

They should do it! Especially with a large class, it allows the students to engage with the material in much greater depth.

Think very carefully about how you will guide students’ peer assessment, for example, by developing a grading rubric for students to use. Make sure to provide sufficient detail and guidance about the different dimensions (categories) of the rubric. Spend time in class explaining these to the students and walking students through what the process is going to look like – explain how the grade is distributed, make the evaluation process clear to them.

You’re always going to get some students who are fearful about what their classmates are going to think of their writing. You have to accept that and do some hand-holding to reassure them. One way to support students is by giving them hints for the review process. Here’s an e-mail I send students to help reduce their anxiety (which other instructors are welcome to adopt for their own students). As long as the students understand the process, it seems to work.

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Want to explore PA further? Join us on May 25, 2017 for a workshop on Designing Successful Peer Assessments.

Join the conversation! Why might you consider using PA?

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