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Using in-class discussions to focus peer assessment


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

Professor Allison Gonsalves teaches Sociocultural and Epistemic Perspectives on Math and Science (EEC 646), a graduate-level course in the Faculty of Education. She recently shared how and why she has implemented PA in this course, and offered advice to other instructors considering implementing PA in their courses.

Picture of Allison Gonsalves

For which assignment did you implement PA?

In the course, we explored theoretical perspectives on science and math education. For the final paper, each student chose and synthesized a topic relating to a sociocultural issue in math and science education, explained how it addressed course content, and linked it to a concrete education example. For instance, a student might write about feminist perspectives on science and talk about the under-representation of women in physics.

Why did you have students do PA?

There were a few reasons:

  • I wanted students to engage with each other’s work because they are in a cohort together and I think it’s important to foster a culture of sharing work.
  • I like giving students the opportunity to give feedback on each other’s work because students bring a lot of knowledge to class. It would feel weird for me to be the only one giving feedback.
  • Because it’s a graduate class, structuring this assignment as engagement with the PA process allowed students to start thinking about the kinds of things you would look for if you were reviewing submissions for a journal, and how you would respond to critical feedback from reviewers.

How was PA implemented?

The process took place over several weeks:

Step When
1.      Choose a topic; draft a paper October
2.      Discuss paper prior to reading Early November
3.      Engage in peer assessment Mid-November
4.      Revise paper; respond to peer assessment; submit Early December
  1. Choose a topic and draft a paper: Each student chose a topic of interest and drafted their paper according to the instructions.
  2. Discuss: Each student chose a partner. Because it was a small, upper-level group of students, I often asked students to self-organize. They had 30 minutes each to talk about their papers in these pairs in class before they read one another’s papers. During that discussion, each student shared: the topic of their paper, their main argument, and the research they had done. They also shared what they saw as their paper’s strengths and weaknesses, what they struggled with in writing their paper, and where they needed help.
  3. Peer assessment: Each student read the other student’s paper. Then, student reviewers had to:
  • List three strengths or things that they liked about the paper, and three weaknesses or areas where they thought the paper needed improvement.
  • Summarize the author’s argument in the reviewer’s own words, describing what they saw as the take-home message. If they were having difficulty doing that, then they had to explain why that was difficult for them. Seeing how somebody else summarizes their work—and whether it’s consistent with how they would have summarized it—can be helpful feedback for the author.

The in-class discussion helped focus the reviewer’s feedback so the reviewer could then say, “I know what this paper is supposed to be about…does it do the things that the author wants it to do? And if the author is struggling, what feedback could I offer to support them in developing their ideas?”

  1. Revise paper; respond to peer assessment; submit: The author revised the paper further to their peer’s feedback and wrote a one-page letter to their peer indicating how they addressed their feedback. The students then submitted their draft paper, peer feedback, letter, and final paper to me.

Why did you decide to include the discussion step as part of PA?

Sometimes when I’m reading students’ papers, it can be hard to figure out what a student’s argument is. When that happens, I feel like if I could just sit down and have a conversation with the student, I would better understand their paper. I wanted to give the students that opportunity to describe what their thesis argument was so that a student reviewer could then read the paper and see if what their peer wrote reflected what their peer had described.

It also fits well pedagogically with “ambitious teaching,” which is the kind of science teaching I do – it includes the idea that students learn science best by talking about important science ideas. It’s based on understanding that when people want to formulate ideas, they may do it best when they’re verbalizing it, so it gives them two opportunities to express their ideas: verbally and in writing.

Can you say more about the letter format, when the author responds to the reviewer?

This is similar to what you’d do when reviewing a manuscript for a journal. The reviewer often took a lot of time, reading a 12-15 page paper and giving lots of feedback. The letter lets the reviewer know that the author has engaged with their feedback and it’s a way of showing appreciation for the time spent reviewing.

Sometimes when I say that we’re going to do a critical review of a journal article or of somebody’s draft, students think it means that they need to really criticize, in a negative sense. That’s not the intent, and responding to feedback in a letter format helps to maintain a better tone. It puts the critique in a more positive light by signaling through the format that it’s a constructive review process.

How was the PA graded?

Completing the PA was worth 10%. Students identified three things they liked about the writing and three areas for improvement:

The author’s letter explaining how they took into account each aspect of the reviewer’s feedback was worth 5%. If the author addressed each aspect of the reviewer’s feedback, either explaining how they integrated it or why they didn’t integrate it, they would get the 5%.

What advice do you have for instructors considering doing PA in their course for the first time?

Perhaps take a look at journals or books in your discipline and see how editorial boards ask reviewers to respond to writing, and then structure the assignment in a similar way that’s appropriate to your genre or disciplinary field.

The assignment needs to be very clear and detailed. Rather than just saying “Review the paper and then give feedback,” try guiding students towards what you want them to reflect on. Otherwise they may not be as focused in their feedback. Giving students examples and suggestions for what they can look for and how they can structure a response is also helpful. Having a clear, detailed assignment with specific expectations also helps you to evaluate students’ responses.

Readers: Want to learn more about peer assessment? Check out Teaching and Learning Services’ other peer assessment resources.

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