Peer and self-assessment: Principles and strategies

Written by: Annabel Daniels | Published:
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Research shows considerable value and impact of peer and self-assessment strategies in teaching. Annabel Daniels considers the tenets of good practice and some practical advice

The value in peer assessment is twofold – there is the potential for both the assessor and the recipient to make learning gains. Peer and self-assessment practices do not support a linear learning process, but facilitate iterative learning processes based on a reciprocal feedback system (Kim, 2008). The process is reflexive and focuses the assessor’s own mind on what constitutes the criteria being met to a high level (Topping, 2005), as well as providing useful formative feedback for the recipient (Newton, 2007).

Barriers to success

There are a number of potential barriers when it comes to adopting these strategies. Below I list the common barriers and some ways to overcome them.

Buy-in: Students may not immediately recognise the value in peer and self-assessment, resulting in lack of motivation and focus: “It is an excuse for teachers not to mark.” “We don’t really respect it because our class mates aren’t qualified teachers.” To overcome this, teachers should explicitly discuss and exemplify the value of the process. A “review” stage can be built in to ensure that the process is interpreted as a learning method, and not simply viewed as an end product (Kim, 2008).

Extrinsic rewards: Students might be extrinsically driven (by the awarding of a mark or grade). However, it is unrealistic and unhelpful for students to award marks to peers as mark schemes are subjective and designed for examiners. As such, qualitative feedback should always be the aim. This is also more useful for the assessor, as giving this type of feedback is more cognitively demanding (Topping, 2005). The semantic differences between the terms “peer learning”, “peer feedback” and “peer assessment” must be recognised. The connotations of “assessment” create the assumption that marks will be assigned (Liu et al, 2006).

Interpretation: Students might have issues with interpreting the feedback they are presented with. Similarly, assessors may not be able to fully access the demands of the criteria (they might just mimic the language). As such, do not expect that any student (even at A level) can fully access the language of mark schemes or exam specifications – they are not designed for students and will need substantial discussion. Also, do not allow students to self or peer-assess directly from a mark scheme. Instead, break it down with them and create your own class version of criteria. Then cross-reference this with exemplification material (Isaacs et al, 2013). Finally, model and use the language of the criteria throughout teaching to develop familiarity with key terminology/concepts.

Objectivity: Students might respond emotionally, rather than objectively. Of course, how the student interprets and deals with feedback is critical to the success of formative assessment (Poulous et al, 2008). You will need to explicitly train students to be open-minded and objective – assess work as a whole class, model peer assessment processes, and do it regularly.

Vague feedback: The feedback that students give might be vague or of poor quality – this will happen when students lack the knowledge or skills to be able to assess effectively. To tackle this, accountability is key. Ensure that students are forced to engage with their peer’s work at a high level (see strategies below). Peer assessment requires evaluation skills. These are at the top of Bloom’s Taxonomy hierarchy (Anderson et al, 2001) and so are recognised as higher-order. Make explicit provision for students to learn the skill of evaluation (Sadler, 1989).

Criteria: Students may not fully understand what makes the piece of work “good” or the task requirements in the first place. They also need to work out how to consolidate and provide meaningful feedback. Peer and self-assessment involve and develop students’ capacity to work at a metacognitive level (Black & Wiliam, 2002) so, again, we need to create opportunities for reflexive learning processes and to explicitly develop these skills. As such, do not bring in peer assessment too early. Spend time teaching the skills first, to allow students to deepen their understanding of the core concepts.

The social factor: Students are concerned about social dynamics; they recognise that they do not necessarily trust their peers and perceive peer learning processes as superficial: “If the person is friends with you they will write nice things, but if they don’t like you they won’t care.” Again, explicitly teach students the value in the process to encourage more mature, meaningful approaches. Choose pairings/groups in advance to ensure that students will be well-matched and suitably challenged.

Subjective subjects: Some subjects are subjective, such as English, meaning that assessment processes are multi-faceted. Even if students are given broken-down criteria to look for, if a student does not fulfil all of this, it does not necessarily mean the work is of poor quality. Similarly, students may find it difficult to recognise all the criteria because one may be interwoven with another (for example, exploring the writer’s intentions and analysing their methods). To counter this, use a range of concrete examples in modelling exercises (Black et al, 2002) and spend time discussing and comparing. Recognise differences in students’ maturity and ability to handle the subjectivity and break-down peer assessment tasks accordingly (see strategies below).

No engagement: Students may receive adequate feedback but not make progress because they are not actively engaging with it or recognising the recursive process. Students must be given substantial time to engage with their feedback (this may involve significant discussion time with their peer). They should immediately do something (e.g. rewrite a paragraph) to show that they have understood their feedback and to demonstrate their ability to make improvements. The purpose of the whole process is formative, so if they are unable to make meaningful changes based on their feedback, the teacher needs to know this and step in. Students could also keep their own “learning logs” of feedback to encourage responsibility and to track whether progress is being made in specific areas. Assessors can then use this log to give more personalised, specific feedback.

The link between peer and self-assessment

Although peer and self-assessment are considered separate practices, research suggests that there are commonalities and links between the two:

  • Brooks et al (2004) make a bold statement: “Formative assessment only achieves its full potential when pupils become engaged with the process through self-assessment.”
  • Reinholz (2016) suggests that when students analyse the work of others, they have access to a variety of examples that help them better see gradations in quality. Thus, peer assessment seems to promote self-assessment by making otherwise invisible assessment processes more explicit and transparent.
  • Black et al (2002) suggest that peer assessment can help develop the objectivity required for effective self-assessment.

Practical strategies

Below are some of strategies that developed from my research review. All of them needed explicit training and practice.

Criteria and colour-codes: Break-down the success criteria into language students can understand. Then the students shade in each criteria point and match it to the work. Assessors can identify criteria that has not been met and are made accountable because they have to engage with the writing. To differentiate for lower ability students, the teacher can write an example sentence for each criteria point. To challenge more able students, the students can unpick/break-down the original criteria themselves.

Group assessment: Group or whole-class assessment of a piece of work is effective. The teacher models the process and the students are being trained. You can use a visualiser or give photocopies to students which they annotate. Discussion of interpretations is key here, and the teacher must verbalise their thoughts and internal assessment process.

Double/triple peer assessment: More than one student gives feedback on a piece of work. This encourages the second assessor to consider the work even more closely, as they cannot repeat the first assessor’s feedback. However, do encourage assessors to be confident to disagree with each other and discuss their different opinions. The second assessor will also have different knowledge and a different perspective to contribute.

Other ideas:

  • Give students specific questions to answer: students are made accountable and are forced to engage in their peer’s work in some depth. This works particularly well for “low-ability” students.
  • Give students short, precise instructions: again, students are made accountable and forced to engage. This works particularly well for some students with SEN, who need the task broken down into manageable chunks.
  • Students annotate throughout their peer’s work (double spaced/extra margin is handy for this).
  • Students frame their feedback as specific questions. The student then goes back to their work and answers/improves.
  • Students assess one paragraph and then pass to another assessor for the next – this can provide some help with the friendship/bias issue.
  • Peer assess in groups (make your own version of De Bono’s “thinking hats” to give each student a particular focus).
  • Peer assess verbally: students engage in meaningful dialogue about their work with no need to formulate this into written feedback.
  • Make students’ work anonymous (reduces bias).
  • Once students become well-trained in peer assessment, they can peer assess the quality of the peer assessment comments!

Planning

  • Ask yourself the following questions when planning a peer assessment task:
  • What do you want the students to gain?
  • How will you know they have engaged with and understand the criteria?
  • How will you know they have engaged with and understand their peer’s work?
  • What will the students do with the feedback?
  • How will you know the students have taken on board their feedback and made progress?

And a final thought: “Students should be considered active agents who share responsibilities, reflect, collaborate and conduct a continuous dialogue with their peers.” (Kim, 2008)

  • Annabel Daniels is second in English in a secondary school. She is passionate about uniting academic research with practical classroom pedagogy and collaborating with other education professionals. See further research and classroom strategies on her blog at https://bit.ly/2HvlraC or connect on Twitter at @MissDanielsEng

Further information & research

  • A Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching and Assessing: A revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, Anderson, Krathwohl & Bloom, Longman, 2001.
  • Working Inside the Black Box, Black et al, King’s College London, 2002.
  • Preparing to Teach in Secondary Schools, Brooks et al, Open University Press, 2004.
  • Key Concepts in Educational Assessment, Isaacs et al, SAGE Publications, 2013.
  • Peer assessment as a learning method: The effects of the assessor and assessee’s role on metacognitive awareness, performance and attitude, Kim, VDM Verlag Dr Muller, 2008.
  • Peer feedback: The learning element of peer assessment, Liu & Carless in Teaching in Higher Education 11:3, Routledge, 2006.
  • English Inside the Black Box: Assessment for learning in the English classroom, Marshall & Wiliam, King’s College London, 2006.
  • Effectiveness of feedback: The students’ perspective, Poulos & Mahony in Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education 3:2, Routledge, 2008.
  • The assessment cycle: A model for learning through peer assessment, Reinholz (in Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education 41:2), Routledge, 2016.
  • Formative Assessment and the Design of Instructional Systems, Sadler in Instructional Science 18: 1, Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1989.
  • Trends in peer learning, Topping (in Educational Psychology 25:6), Routledge, 2005.


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