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Peer Assessment as a Sustainable Feedback Practice


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. 

Dror Etzion teaches Strategies for Sustainability (MGPO-440), an elective course offered by the Faculty of Management. Enrolment is typically between 50 and 60 students from Management as well as other Faculties, such as Arts, Sciences, and Engineering. During a conversation with Dror about this course, he shared how he has implemented peer assessment of a team project and peer assessment of students’ contribution to teamwork. He also offered advice to instructors considering implementing peer assessment in their courses. 

What is your motivation for including PA in your course?

As I indicate to students in the course outline, “sustainability is a team sport.” I think it’s important for students in Management to be able to work as part of a team, and when students work as part of a team, they have to be able to give and receive peer feedback. Also, feedback from the professor, well, I think students probably deem it to be necessarily biased because I’m from a different generation. I’m always open to crowd sourcing grades. Peer assessment allows me to do that to a large extent.

How are the student teams formed?

They’re established independently of me. I ask students to work in teams of four, though sometimes there are teams of three or five. I give guidelines, like, it’s good to have people from different disciplinary backgrounds, but students don’t take that to heart as much as they should. They tend to gravitate toward friends or people they’ve seen in other classes. Some of the teams are effective and team members form meaningful links between each other. They establish a sense of community and interest in each other’s work. Other teams are much more instrumental in doing the project and there isn’t any deeper engagement. One time, because this course is open to other faculties, four engineers got together, which was too bad because they didn’t benefit from cross-disciplinary perspectives. Students don’t heed my guidelines as much as they should, but I think it’s up to them to decide what their comfort level is, and sometimes they learn the hard way.

How do you implement PA of the project?

Students are assigned a semester-long team project that gives them an opportunity to learn how to provide constructive feedback to peers. Students decide early in the term what their topic will be. Then, I choose which team gives feedback to which team. I match groups so that there is very little topical overlap, so that there is no disincentive to provide good feedback.

There are two rounds of feedback so that students can improve their projects throughout the semester. The first is not graded. The second is worth 10%. Feedback from the draft stage to a more polished version allows students to see that the project is really getting better as the course progresses.

To help teams get the most out of the peer feedback, each team provides questions in writing to their peers on the specific issues where they want help. The “evaluating team” answers these questions and can provide additional suggestions. I also give time in class for teams to work together and meet the team they’ll give feedback to, like, here’s 15 minutes, go talk to them. This happens shortly after the teams are formed and once students have selected the topics of their projects. I used to hoard my time so that I could project as much information at the class as possible, but I’ve kind of walked away from that to give students more time to feel comfortable in the classroom and work with each other. That also minimizes the chance of one student not understanding what’s going on. Somebody in the group can explain to them what the project task is and how the peer assessment works.

In addition to PA of the project, students assess peers’ participation in the team. How do you implement that?

The first deliverable for the team project is for the team to devise and agree upon a contract that articulates the norms and expectations they have for each other as they work together over the semester. On myCourses, I’ve put a template for a contract, but I encourage teams to develop a tailored contract that their team is comfortable with. At the end of the course, students assess each teammate’s participation and professionalism. I remind students to reference the contract to make sure their assessment is accurate and evidence-based. This assessment is worth 5%. Each student’s grade is the average of the scores given by their team members. Students did the assessment by filling in an online form.

I clarify up front what students have to do and I think the contract manages to set expectations quite well, so students are prepared by the end of the course to do the assessment. Also, by the time they get to my course, they’re usually already acculturated to the idea that teamwork is a part of many of their courses. So, peer-grading is never really a concern.

What advice do you have for instructors who are considering implementing PA in their courses? There are a lot of things that go on when doing peer assessment. Students aren’t always sure what to do, like to whom they should submit feedback. So, allocate time to explain the task, and give students opportunities to ask questions so that they really comprehend the mechanics of the exercise. Get an affirmation that everybody understands what they need to do.

Readers: Wondering how students can develop their feedback skills to support teamwork? This brief TLS video addresses how peer assessment can support productive and harmonious team experiences by making students accountable to their team members.

Academic Associate at McGill's Teaching and Learning Services.; former Senior Faculty Lecturer at the McGill Writing Centre; area of specialization: Second Language Education; loves teaching and learning; will work for chocolate (Photo credit: Owen Egan)

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