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Peer assessment: Engaging students and promoting accountability

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.

Amanda Cervantes is an instructor at the Ingram School of Nursing in the Faculty of Medicine. In a recent interview, she explained how she has implemented PA in two of her courses. Amanda also shared ideas about accountability and the role of PA in professional nursing practice, and offered advice to other instructors considering implementing PA in their courses.

Why do you have your students do PA?

PA is a way for students to learn how to give feedback. Giving constructive feedback is important for nursing students to learn because nursing is a profession where you’re expected to give so much feedback in the clinical world. In my course outline I write, “As nurse leaders you will often be asked to give feedback on other people’s work.” As nurses, we preceptor (definition) new nurses and nursing students. We are asked to give feedback regularly on medical trainees, nurses we work with, and programs/protocols. Feedback may be via email, or face to face, or formal written feedback. Often your name is attached to the feedback you provide, so I want to instill in students the idea of being accountable for their feedback. It took me a while in my professional life to be comfortable giving feedback, so I hope PA in class helps “jump start” students’ development of the skill of giving good feedback.

Another reason I do PA is because it can be a reflective learning activity to help foster student engagement during class presentations. By incorporating peer feedback, students are more attentive to peers’ in-class presentations, and engage more thoroughly with one another’s work.

How have you implemented PA in your two courses?

In my Childhood Nursing course (NUR2 607), which has just under 20 students, students do two in-class presentations in groups of four to five students. For the first presentation, students share a concept map they developed. For the second presentation, they share a project they did.

Two groups present every three weeks and the entire class gives them feedback. Each group presents twice. So, over the course of the semester, each student gives feedback on six presentations. They have to write a couple of sentences, but I don’t give too many guidelines because I don’t want to be too prescriptive. I also don’t grade students’ feedback. After the presentations, I get a pile of handwritten feedback forms, which I look through briefly to see what feedback students are providing to one another. Then I scan and upload them to myCourses for the relevant students.

Since the students write feedback on the presentations, they are attentive during the presentations. It makes it a more reflective experience for the feedback receiver. It also helps all students in the class understand that the feedback they give their peers should be respectful, insightful and show that they were engaged in their presentation. We also use a teamwork feedback software called CATME. Students are asked to evaluate each of their team members and themselves.

In my summer clinical course, Nursing in Illness 1 (NUR1 331), the 100 or so students do an environmental scan of the area near their clinical site. Using Peergrade, students submit their assignment drafts and then read three other students’ assignments. My goal is for students to see different peers’ understanding of the same population in the environmental scan. The PA isn’t graded because the goal is to have students reflect on what they take away from reading peers’ work. But if they don’t do the PA, then their assignment grade doesn’t get released on myCourses. I also like that with the PA, they reconnect with their own submitted work. Often, students submit and forget. This adds a place for reflective learning.

Sometimes the assignments are really straightforward, but sometimes everyone focuses on a slightly different thing, which actually makes the assignments more interesting to read. And based on students’ responses, I think making it a comparison to their own work is an interesting way for them to think about the assignment.

You said earlier that it’s important for nursing students to learn how to give feedback. How do you help students learn this skill?

I set up my expectations clearly at the beginning of the course, saying that the feedback should be professional, and students should consider the feelings of the people they’re writing to; nuance matters.

Also, I ask questions to guide students’ feedback that encourage them to think about where they’re coming from, about their own perspective that they bring to giving feedback. For instance:

  •  “What did your peer do in their project that you wished you had done in yours?”
  • “What did you do in your assignment that you wished your peer had done in theirs?”

When we do peer feedback of group work dynamics using CATME, we ask students to provide feedback on specific points relating to their own contributions and team members’ contributions to group projects. The peer feedback is graded based on completeness and in total is worth 10% of the course grade. So, they do PA of every group member and self-assess as well. This feedback is only seen by the feedback recipient and the instructor. Group work can bring out strong emotions. There have been only a couple of cases where the feedback was a little harsh. I spot-check responses and if someone provides problematic feedback, I speak separately to the person who wrote the feedback. We talk about how it might be received by a student who has not expected that particular feedback. I encourage them to talk to one another. Then I give a heads-up to the person who will receive the feedback. I still think it is important to release the feedback un-edited but I mediate the situation.

How have your students responded to doing PA?

Some of the students think it’s extra work, while some say they’re glad to read someone else’s work. I try to frame PA as a part of the learning process where students engage with one another’s work, rather than something extra. Students think they’ve turned an assignment in and it’s done! So, part of my task is changing that thinking.

Has anything surprised you about implementing PA?

Yes. One surprise is that while sometimes students’ manner of giving feedback is less formal, the feedback is still useful. This informal manner comes out especially in my smaller class where the students all know each other well. While a formal answer might be, “In your presentation I found that you really engaged well,” students instead say, “Yo! It was fun. I really liked it when you showed that video.” Also, students might write with a marker or draw pictures on the feedback form. At first I was skeptical that they were meeting the goal of engaging with one another’s work, but their comments were actually insightful and well thought-out. I had to let go of the formality and that was okay – after all, this is their feedback to each other; it isn’t mine.

Another surprise is that some students ask for time to give face to face feedback to each other. While I haven’t integrated this yet, it seems to show that students realize that especially in group work, face to face feedback is important. In real life you’re not always writing on a form; you’re talking to each other.

What advice would you give to an instructor who is thinking about trying PA in their course for the first time?

I’d say two things:

  1. Think about the guiding question: “What is the end goal?” That will change how you set up the PA, and the questions you choose to guide the PA. For instance, if the goal is to assign your students a grade, that will inform how you set up the PA. My goals have always been to increase engagement during class, and to help students develop as professionals, so I’m not so focused on assigning a grade. Since I wanted more engagement in watching the presentations, I picked the kinds of questions that would support that. Share the goals of PA with your students, so they know, too.
  2. Pose questions that the students can answer from their own perspective and knowledge so the students don’t feel overwhelmed.

Readers: What is your goal in having students do peer assessment?

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