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Peer assessment: Two courses, three peer assessment activities

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.

Natalya Gomez (@NatalyaGomezEPS on Twitter), an instructor in the Faculty of Science’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, uses PA in two of her courses. In conversation, she shared the different ways she implements PA, reflected on giving feedback in writing and verbally, and offered advice to other instructors considering implementing PA in their courses. In the current remote teaching context, PA can support students’ engagement with one another, even when they are physically at a distance.

Why do you have your students do PA?

I think the act of giving feedback is instructive. Thinking critically and then communicating in a constructive way is a useful skill to develop … and it takes work! PA happens all the time in the real world: When I submit a journal article, it gets peer reviewed. When I write certain emails, I’ll send the email to a friend and say, “Hey, is this wording okay? I want to make sure it’s coming across well.” Becoming more comfortable with asking for and giving peer feedback is an important life skill wherever you end up.

Also, I want students to feel a greater sense of ownership of their work. If a student hands something in and the teacher says, “This part is good; this part needs work,” a student might not think as critically about the feedback. But if a student receives feedback from a couple of different people, hopefully they’re thinking, “Do I agree with all of this feedback? What do I want to incorporate, and why?” I hope the students think critically about changes they’re invited to make to their work, because after all, it’s their own work.

How do you implement PA in your courses?

I implement PA in two different 500-level courses with fewer than 10 students each: Geodynamics (EPSC 510) and Earth System Applications (ESYS 500). Students do PA for three different assignments types: an article, a presentation, and blog posts.

Geodynamics is an upper-year course and the students already have taken other courses in Earth and Planetary Sciences or Geophysics. In Geodynamics, students do PA on an article and a presentation:

Article

Students choose a paper on geodynamics to review in a Nature “news and views”-style article. I give them some guidance on what to look for in a paper, and I have them send me their paper choice beforehand.

The in-class PA takes about an hour, and works like this:

  1. Students draft their articles and bring two copies to class.
  2. Each student pairs up with another student, swaps articles, reads the other person’s draft article and fills out a peer feedback form.
  3. They give each other the written feedback, read it through and then they have some time for discussion, during which they clarify their feedback.

They do two rounds of PA, so they get two different peers’ perspectives on their article. Then they revise their articles further to the PA and submit the final version, due a month later.

Presentation

In addition to writing an article, each student gives a presentation about the paper. They introduce the paper, summarize it, assess it, put it in the context of other literature, and talk about future research directions. Before the presentations begin, I have them brainstorm what they think makes a good presentation. After the presentations, they give each other constructive feedback: one positive comment and one suggestion for improvement. It is pretty wide open what the feedback should address, and because of the brainstorming exercise, they know what the class as a whole is looking for and can keep this in mind when giving feedback.

Blog posts

Earth System Applications is a capstone research course in the Earth Systems Science stream. This year, further to participating in the EPS learning community, I decided to add a blog post assignment to this course.

Now, each student writes two blog posts during the semester, and they give one another feedback on those posts. Diane Dechief (McGill Writing Center) was a big help in designing this assignment. She gave a workshop about blogging to the students, too. A first blog post aims to answer a question, either “Why are you studying earth systems science,” or “What are you excited about in this course?,” or “What do you hope to learn?” Students draft their blog posts individually, then put the posts in a Google Doc and swap draft posts with another student during class. It doesn’t take long to read them because they are only 250-350 words. Students exchange feedback orally to allow for more of a back-and-forth discussion, instead of just a one-way flow of ideas. Though the students can take notes on a feedback guidelines page to remind them of what they are going to say, the focus is really meant to be on the feedback conversation: discussing one person’s blog post and then discussing the other person’s blog post. Then students revise their blog posts and post them the next week on the course blog.

After completing the first blog post, each student chooses a week where they commit to writing a second blog post. In this course, the students are doing real, collaborative, hands-on research, often for the first time. The second blog post is to get across what that experience is like for them, along with some details about the science behind the research itself. For that, they pair up so that there is a writer and an editor each week. In the most recent semester, the grading scheme was framed such that the writer and the editor receive the same grade for the assignment. However, I can imagine grading the writer and the reviewer separately in future years, given the potential for differences in the strength of the writing and the feedback. In either case, there are four steps:

  1. The writer drafts a post in a Google Doc.
  2. The editor gives feedback on the post.
  3. The writer sends me the draft, the editor’s feedback and the revised post.
  4. The revised post goes up on the web.

Every student both edits and writes something: each week in the course there is one person in the course who is writing something. The next week, they receive feedback and work through the revisions, then the revised blog post gets uploaded. Meanwhile, another person starts writing about that week.

How do students learn to give constructive feedback?

We talk about it, and I mention the voice of the feedback. I encourage the students to frame it from their own perspective to make it more constructive, such as saying “When I read this, I found that I didn’t understand this specific thing.”

I try to give students a sense of empathy and understanding for each other, both as the giver and the receiver of feedback. This means recognizing that they are a diverse group of people – in fact, just recognizing that people are giving and receiving the feedback is important. Even if we all know that, it is useful to say it out loud.

What would you suggest to an instructor interested in trying PA in their course for the first time?

  • Don’t reinvent the wheel! Instead of starting from scratch, you can build on assignments that already exist. Seeing other examples really helps: Talk to peers in your department or reach out to TLS.
  • Provide opportunities for students to learn and practice constructive ways of delivering feedback. It’s helpful to offer hands-on experience practicing during class first, before students go off and give feedback more independently.
  • Think about how you’re delivering the assignment: introduce it carefully, explain why you’re doing it, and you can steer students to take more ownership of it.

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