" ...developing students’ capacity for the making of evaluative judgements about their own and others’ work is weakly developed in higher education, even though these skills are highly valued in all aspects of life beyond university."
University of Strathclyde PEER project
Why is peer review important?
It's a process where students review other students' work and provide feedback on it. Usually this involves students producing feedback reviews for peers and receiving feedback reviews from others.
The topic is important because producing peer feedback helps students develop critical thinking skills and make evaluative judgements based on the assignment criteria. In giving and receiving feedback, students develop skills that help prepare them for future professional practice and helps them understand the process of making academic judgements.
Giving and receiving feedback
Both producing and receiving feedback can significantly enhance student learning although qualitatively in different ways. Giving and receiving feedback are significantly different activities. Giving feedback is a very proactive process requiring students to review and think about the assignment criteria, and make comparative judgements.
Receiving peer feedback can be a valuable supplement to tutor feedback and enable students to reflect on things they may not have thought about. Research however shows that students giving feedback generally see the benefits in terms of their own development, even if the work they are reviewing is weak, whereas significant numbers of students receive peer reviews in a more passive fashion and find them unhelpful.
When reviewing the work of others students inevitably make comparisons with the work they have produced themselves and gain an understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of different approaches.
Peer review study
An in-depth peer review study at the University of Strathclyde concluded that attempts to deliver more and better quality feedback to students would have limited impact. To enhance learning, students need to be engaged in the process of making such academic judgements for themselves.
The study also suggested that the best way to enhance learning is by making peer review a platform for the development of critical thinking across a whole programme of study, rather than as an occasional task in a module or course.
What are the common problems?
Peer review can be an unfamiliar and sometimes uncomfortable activity for many students. The notion that formal education is about learning from experts is deeply ingrained in the student psyche and attitudes towards peer review can vary depending on a student's previous educational background and culture.
Despite the many benefits, peer review is equally unfamiliar to some academic staff and many staff fear either student dissatisfaction, increased workload or both as a result of introducing peer review activities.
Staff often raise concerns about students plagiarising the work of others but you can generally overcome these with well-designed peer review activities.
Giving and receiving feedback
(adapted from the University of Strathclyde's PEER project which identified tools to support peer review.)
The benefits for students giving feedback to peers:
- It involves constructing meaning. Giving feedback is a demanding cognitive activity - students can't be passive when giving feedback whereas they can be passive in using the feedback they receive
- Helps to address lack of understanding in assignment tasks - constructing feedback requires students to actively engage with assessment criteria
- Students develop disciplinary expertise and writing skills through regular evaluation. This process complements and elaborates on teacher and peer feedback
- Stimulates self-reflection and results in the transfer of learning to students' own work. They see different approaches and recognise that they can achieve quality in a variety of ways
- If handled sensitively, engaging students in feedback in a safe and trusting environment can help develop social cohesion and learning communities. Peer feedback moves away from learning and assessment as a private activity
- Helps students develop the ability to appraise their own work. In this way, peer review directly helps students to become more independent and effective at self-regulating their own learning.
The benefits for students receiving feedback from peers:
- Peers often provide feedback that is easier to understand than the teachers as it's written in a language that's more accessible
- Students might receive more feedback than is possible from a single teacher
- They learn how different readers interpret their work. This is important for developing communication skills where anticipating the reader response is important
- Peer review might save some teacher time and reduce the need for extensive teacher feedback, or allow teachers to target feedback.
"Being involved in peer feedback, then, didn’t just keep students on track by telling them what they had done well or aspects they had missed. It also helped some reframe their views of feedback as a dialogic, participative process, and helped them begin to recognise the importance of taking deep approaches to learning and viewing the subject matter through a different lens."
How might we use technology and what are the benefits?
Software tools can support learners in devising questions for peers, marking, reviewing, moderating or giving feedback on each other’s work. They provide benefits such as:
- Increasing the scalability of peer assessment
- Engaging learners in spending time with assessment criteria
- Developing learners’ evaluative and digital literacy skills
- Enabling activities to take place in any location at any time
- Providing confidential and immediately collated results
- Supporting group work and independent learning.
The immediacy, frequency and volume of software supported peer feedback is likely to make up for any difference in quality between peer and tutor feedback.
The University of Strathclyde's peer review study concluded that software is not only beneficial but necessary to support peer review because:
- Students generally value anonymity which would be difficult to achieve without software support
- It would be unreasonable to expect academic staff to administer peer review manually due to the extra workload this would cause.
Despite the many benefits there appears room for further improvement in current peer software systems. In particular many systems (especially those that are open source) don't offer easy integration with VLEs. Improved support for managing student groups would also be beneficial.
How does peer review relate to the lifecycle?
You need to consider peer review at many stages. For it to be most effective, you will think about it at the specifying stage and introduce the approach early in a programme of study. The activities become increasingly demanding as the students develop the necessary skills.
It may feature at the supporting stage where activities are purely formative. Peer review also forms part of producing marking and feedback as it may generate a considerable volume of useful feedback very easily -
It may be a feature of the supporting stage where purely formative peer review activities take place ahead of introducing an assessment element. Peer assessment forms part of producing marking and feedback - it may generate a considerable volume of useful feedback very easily and, in some cases, peer marks may count towards the mark for a summative assessment.
What resources can help?
- The University of Strathclyde's PEER project contains useful information and guidance on how to undertake peer review
- Professor David Nicol's paper developing students' ability to construct feedback forms part of the University of Strathclyde's PEER project
- Oxford Brookes University's guidance outlines making peer feedback work in three easy steps (pdf)