Preparing students to provide constructive feedback on peers’ work


A number of instructors at McGill have integrated peer assessment (PA) in their courses and have generously shared some of their reflections on the experience.

Carolyn Samuel taught the course Academic English II (CESL 300) for several years through the McGill Writing Centre. In a conversation about her experience implementing PA, she described an assignment, explained how students learn to assess their peers, and offered advice for instructors considering implementing PA in their classes. 

Q: How do you use PA in your course?

PA-blog-Carolyn-photo.jpgI like students to get into the habit of doing outlines for their writing. So, for one essay assignment, I have students give one another feedback on an essay outline. I place students in private groups of three in a designated myCourses discussion forum. Students post their essay outlines to the discussion forum, and outside of class time, each student gives feedback to the other two students by posting comments to the discussion forum. I can access all the posts.

Students use the feedback to tweak their outlines. When students submit their essay drafts to me, they’re also required to submit the revised outline. I provide feedback on the revised outline and on the draft essay. Students use this feedback to revise their essays for a final submission.

Q: How do you prepare your students to give one another feedback?

Students learn outlining in class—we look at examples of outlines and critique them. I make a point of sharing examples of well-written outlines as well as some that could be improved. It’s important for students to see and reflect on ranges of assignment quality.

When we do the critiquing, I encourage students to reflect on the kinds of comments that would be helpful. So, when a student says something like, “I don’t understand that,” I ask, “Well, what can a writer do with that piece of feedback? How can a writer make it better just knowing that you don’t understand it?” Students are encouraged to develop an ability to provide feedback that is “actionable” and that will help writers improve their work.

PA-blog-image-Instructions-and-criteria.JPG
An excerpt from the instructions students receive for the PA assignment

We also talk about basic feedback practices, like, if you have something negative to say, make it constructive, and also say something positive about the peer’s writing. Balancing favourable and less favourable comments is important.

Q: What can students comment on when they give feedback?

Typically, students are skeptical about their ability to comment on peers’ work. So, through discussions in class, we address what students can reasonably comment on and what kinds of feedback are helpful for their peers. I’m less interested in students addressing spelling mistakes, or grammar and syntax, areas that bear less on one’s ability to express and support an argument and that students might not be able to address. In this particular assignment, we focus on features like the quality of the thesis statement and the strength of the support for it. Students can also comment on the organization of ideas and the cohesion of ideas from one paragraph to another, even though the outlines are in bullet form. My goal is for students to read their peers’ work in a way they should be reading their own.

It’s worth mentioning that the PA assignment is graded. It’s not worth very much – just 5% of the grade, so it’s 2.5 marks for each of two pieces of feedback. Marks are awarded for constructive feedback, examples of which students have seen in class. I’m not overly strict, though. Essentially, if students have done it, and it’s constructive, they get the marks. If students provide feedback that’s unhelpful, like, “Your spelling isn’t very good” or “I don’t understand what you’re saying,” I don’t award marks.

Q: What would you suggest to instructors interested in trying PA in their class for the first time?

The first time you do it, make it very low-stakes. It can be extremely challenging to implement PA. It’s challenging for the instructor in terms of logistics and pedagogy—you want to get them just right. And it’s often challenging for students, too, because many haven’t done it before. So start out with low-stakes, and try the same assignment more than one time. As you develop your expertise with PA, and if you feel it’s appropriate, then think about raising the stakes, or maybe increasing the complexity of the assignment. Just be kind to yourself and to your students as you experiment because PA takes some planning.

Join the conversation! What experiences have you had with PA in your courses?

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