How to make peer assessment work in secondary school

Michael McGarvey turns the spotlight on peer assessment in the classroom…

Michael McGarvey
by Michael McGarvey
FREE, BITE-SIZED CPD Speedy Assessment CPD for secondary teachers

Peer assessment is the process of students assessing each other’s work rather than handing it to the teacher.

There are different ways of implementing peer assessment in your own classroom. It can be given in the form of a grade (peer grading) or a comment (peer feedback). It can be a really effective way to engage students with new ideas, as well as helping them to reflect on their own work and motivate them to engage with course material more deeply.

But for peer assessment to be valuable, it must encourage students to properly engage with each others’ work and make considered suggestions for improvement. This in turn enhances students’ learning through knowledge diffusion and exchange.

Multiple advantages

A 2006 study by Sadler and Good [PDF] breaks down the benefits of peer assessment, and shows that they can be broadly summarised according to four categories – logistical benefit, pedagogical benefit, metacognitive benefit and social benefit.

Logistically, peer assessment is good for the teacher because it reduces the amount of marking they need to do outside the classroom. It’s good for the students because they can access feedback on their work immediately, whilst still in the context of the lesson. Often, if work is handed back a week or even a few days after completion, the feedback may be too late to be effective. Peer feedback, however, is dynamic and open for discussion.

Pedagogically, peer assessment can be empowering for students because it gives them the opportunity to learn and teach, improving and developing multiple skillsets at once. Marking another student’s work gives the assessor a new perspective, and encourages them to more closely consider their own work, while judging the correctness of answers will enable them to deepen their understanding of a topic.

The metacognitive benefits come from the students’ process of ‘thinking about thinking’, or even ‘learning how to learn.’ This is a critical part of schooling in the twenty-first century, as Andreas Schleicher, Director for Education and Skills at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) explains succinctly:

A generation ago, teachers could expect that what they taught would last a lifetime. Today, because of rapid economic and social change, schools have to prepare students for jobs that have not yet been created, technologies that have not yet been invented, and problems that we don’t yet know will arrive.

Theoretically, peer assessment will give students a better understanding of marking systems which allows them to make strategic decisions for taking tests and solving problems – skills which are every bit as crucial as understanding the content of individual topics.

Finally, the social benefits of peer assessment come with the empowerment pupils feel when they are able to share in the power traditionally held by the teacher, as well the group bonding it fosters, as students build a sense of shared ownership for the learning process.

Challenges to consider

That said, there are limitations to the benefits of peer assessment, and many teachers may have concerns about implementing it themselves.

For example, many teachers may worry that peer grading might not be as accurate – or at least as consistent – as grading done by a teacher, particularly where students are influenced by their friendships or personal relationships with their peers.

It may be that a teacher prefers to only implement peer assessment on work that can be marked objectively, such as a multiple choice quiz. They can then use the experience to train their students in thinking about how to mark, so it may later be implemented in subjective assessments.

In addition, some students may be embarrassed about being marked by their peers, and would worry about their grades being known openly in the classroom. This could be addressed by protecting the name of the student whose mark is being marked, but it should be noted that this would limit the possibility of a useful discussion about feedback. Generally, peer assessment works best when students are paired with peers of similar abilities, and when a supportive, non-threatening atmosphere has been fostered.

When done well, peer assessment brings a wealth of benefits – and there are many ways of enabling students to become confident markers.

Rubrics, breakdowns and examples

Should teachers wish to incorporate peer assessment into their own classrooms, however, there are a few things to think about. Firstly, they should develop rubrics or marking guidelines that clearly define the tasks behind the marking process, and involve these rubrics in learning exercises so that students are able to apply them effectively.

It may also help to consider breaking larger assessments down into smaller chunks, inviting students to assess their peers at each stage.

And finally, of course, it always helps to lead by example. Teachers who use a consistent marking process with constructive criticism and illustrative feedback when marking students’ work will be best placed to introduce peer assessment into the classroom – and the those most likely to get the most out of it.

Michael McGarvey has over 20 years of experience in the global education sector, and currently works as the Director of UK Education at Cambridge University Press

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