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Peer assessment: Honing skills for giving and receiving back

A number of instructors at McGill University have implemented peer assessment (PA) in their courses and have generously shared some of their experiences and reflections on the topic.

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Bassel Atallah, a course lecturer with the McGill Writing Centre, shared how he has implemented PA in the course Communication in Engineering (CCOM 206). The course is required for most undergraduate Engineering students, and students usually take it in their first year of the programme (max. 25 students/section). The course addresses communication genres, such as written reports, CVs, and oral presentations, that engineers need for their careers, whether in an engineering profession or academia.

Bassel has a personal history with the course because as an Engineering student 19 years ago, he took this very course. In a conversation about his experience implementing PA in this course, Bassel describes an oral presentation assignment.

Carolyn: Why have you implemented PA in your course?

Bassel: PA is part of the course because the course deals with communication, and PA requires communication skills. So, in addition to working on these skills through written and oral assignments, students learn how to give and receive peer feedback, other skills which are especially important for later in their careers.

C: What do you hope students will get out of doing PA in the context of the oral presentation assignment?

B: The key word is ‘peer.’ They are getting comments from their classmates who have the same concerns. It’s preparation for their career because in industry, they are going to be in constant communication with other engineers, getting feedback quite regularly from colleagues and supervisors. They’ll have to know how to offer and receive feedback because PA is a two-way process. When someone says to them, ‘This part was well done for the following reasons, but for the future, I suggest the following things,’ they’ll have to know how to deal with that.

C: How have you implemented PA in the context of the oral presentation assignment?

B: The assignment is a business report where the students, working in groups, create a fictitious company that conduct an engineering project of their choice, such as how to improve sustainability on campus or implement a new public transportation system in a specific city. Students imagine they’re actual engineers, do a lot of research about the project, deliver a business presentation in class, and submit a written report at the end of the semester. They enjoy the assignment because they do the kind of work they envision doing in the future.

C: How are the groups formed?

B: About halfway through the semester, I create five groups. Ideally, I like to have students from different departments in each group—some from mechanical engineering, some from computer engineering, and so on. I also try to avoid having, say, five U0s in the same group, especially if it’s the first semester. I consider English language levels, as well. I try to create groups where the students, in addition to learning about the engineering service they’re researching, also learn valuable teamwork skills. I want students to get a lot out of working within diverse groups because when students graduate, their careers in the engineering profession will mostly involve work in groups.

C: How do you actually create the groups? Is it a manual process or do you use software?

B: In Minerva, I see each student’s department and year of study. Then, I spend a lot of time forming groups using good old fashioned paper and pen.

C: Where does PA fit into the assignment?

B: PA happens for the oral presentations—once for a practice presentation and once for the actual presentation. Students tend to be nervous about giving oral presentations. That’s why I have students give ungraded practice presentations. The practice is the first time the students present in front of the whole class. For the practice presentations, each student presents their research from a previous individual assignment. They have around a minute to present. Their group members have to write down feedback that they will give to their peer. After everyone has presented, students get together in their groups to exchange feedback with each other.

C: Just to make sure I’ve understood correctly—students present one by one, and let’s say there’s a group of five students and one of the five is presenting, the other four will take notes for feedback. Is that right?

B: Yes.

C: What kind of guidance do you provide students about how to give feedback?

B: Before the practice presentations, we usually spend two classes talking about what it means to give an effective presentation, like how to stand, transition smoothly from one speaker to the next, use hand gestures, use visuals, and organize content so that there’s an introduction, middle, and conclusion. So, students’ feedback will be based on what we discussed in class. For the actual presentations, these criteria are in a rubric. We also talk about what it means to give constructive feedback. Feedback like “Good job!” is nice to hear but not constructive; there’s nothing to take from it. The idea of constructive feedback is to address specific things that worked or didn’t work in that presentation. Constructive feedback should help the peer for the future.

C: What happens after students have received feedback on their practice presentations?

B: Students then have about a week between their practice and actual presentations. For the actual presentation, they present as a group, but each person speaks for around 5 minutes in their role in their company. For the audience, it should not appear that five people are just talking about the same subject. So, the presentation is both individual and group based.

C: How is PA part of the actual presentation?

B: Students are given a rubric. It’s uploaded on myCourses, and I also show it in class so that presenters know what to do and peers giving feedback know what to focus on. The group presenting on a given day focuses on their presentation, but the other 20 students are not just sitting there watching; they’re working, as well, because they have to provide feedback.

C: Does that mean everybody receives feedback from 20 peers?

B: No. Every student is assigned one presenter, so each presenter will have four peers giving them feedback. In the end, students get feedback from four peers who are not in their group.

C: Is the feedback anonymous?

B: No; students write their names.

C: Do you get to see the feedback or does it go directly from student to student?

B: I collect it, read it, and then pass it on to the students in the next class.

C: Is a grade involved in the PA?

B: Students receive marks for doing the task. They get a ‘portfolio grade,’ which is based on a series of in-class exercises they do throughout the course. So, if they do the job properly, they get marks within their 15% portfolio grade. I tell students: Offer your classmates honest and constructive feedback. If that’s done properly, they get part of the marks for the semester-long portfolio grade.

C: What are the criteria for ‘doing the job properly’?

B: I assess the quality of students’ comments. I’m looking for constructive feedback rather than comments like “good job!”

C: How do students react to doing PA in the context of this assignment?

B: They tend to be quite keen on receiving feedback from their peers. When students are absent from class, students who are presenting get fewer comment sheets and they say, ‘Hey, how come I didn’t get four sheets like everyone else?’ They’re disappointed by that. So, they do kind of look forward to finding out what their peers think.

Readers: What opportunities do your students have for developing skills like giving and receiving feedback?

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Associate Director, Faculty and Teaching Development, and Senior 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!

(Photo credit: Owen Egan)

Associate Director, Faculty and Teaching Development, and Senior 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! (Photo credit: Owen Egan)

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