Three years ago I was teaching a graduate computer science course with 20 students. When students weren’t solving assignments or giving presentations, I was able to spend my time interacting with them one-on-one. The class operated smoothly. Then I changed the title of the course to include the words “big data”. Next year my course—using the same curriculum—had 150 students sign up!
When teaching many students at once, some ordinary things become near impossible. There is no way to give personalized feedback when I have 600 pages to grade each week. (That’s 150 students x 10 assignments in 13 weeks x 5 pages per assignment). Colleagues suggested that I switch to multiple choice exams, but I declined because I believe strongly in the importance of open-ended problem solving. Instead, I decided to enhance my approach to problem solving by incorporating peer review—letting students participate in the feedback and assessment process.
In my expanded class, I asked students to turn in their work anonymously. I then had each review work by three other students according to a feedback rubric I created; I moderated the process throughout. To make all this possible, I built my own digital tool, which has evolved into Peergrade—a free online platform to facilitate peer feedback sessions with students.
Peer review is not just a means to an end, however. It is also an effective pedagogical strategy to teach students the skills of critical thinking, giving and receiving feedback and taking responsibility for their own learning. A research summary by England’s Education Endowment Foundation notes that teaching practice is more effective when it incorporates feedback, peer tutoring, collaborative learning, meta-cognition and self-regulation—all components of effective peer review.
According to an analysis by the Wall Street Journal, however, U.S. colleges are falling short when it comes to teaching students critical-thinking skills such as making cohesive arguments, assessing evidence and interpreting data. And at the secondary school level, peer review is still a new concept for many teachers and students.
Advice for effective peer review
Here are some concrete steps you can take to make peer review effective in your classroom:
1. Use a Feedback Rubric
Writing useful feedback is hard. The biggest challenge for teachers when using peer feedback is to get students to make specific suggestions instead of just saying, “great work!” And the best way to help students do this is to scaffold the process with a feedback rubric. The difference between grading rubrics and feedback rubrics is that the latter focuses more on supporting students as they construct their own useful, formative feedback.
You can also co-create feedback rubrics with your students. If they help formulate the criteria, they will develop a much deeper understanding of what good work looks like. And they’ll buy into the peer review process even more.
I have co-authored a guide for teachers that contains detailed suggestions as well as sample rubrics.
2. Make the feedback process anonymous
In the beginning, most students may be reluctant to share their work with peers and write feedback to each other. A recent study found that students actually write better feedback when they are allowed to remain anonymous in the process. Based on my own students’ input, I developed Peergrade to allow both submissions and reviews to be anonymous.
3. Moderate and review feedback from students
Students often feel uncertain about the peer review process. Their most common fear is that they will receive “unfair” feedback from peers. To help alleviate this problem, I recommend that teachers moderate the process. Read at least some of the exchanges between students and add your own perspectives when specific student feedback is lacking. Some digital tools for peer review makes this easy by allowing students to flag feedback for teacher moderation.
4. Ask students to react to the feedback they receive
One of the best ways to learn is to get feedback on your work. This is of course also the case when it comes to giving feedback. Ask your students to “give feedback on the feedback” that they receive. This way will students know how their comments are perceived, and allow them to improve their feedback-giving skills. Good feedback should be constructive, specific, kind, justified and relevant.
5. Start small and in class
When peer review is new to teachers and students, it’s unlikely that the first attempt will be perfect. I always recommend that teachers start small. Ask students to review something short and simple, such as the introduction to an essay. If possible, make the peer review session a classroom activity—instead of homework—so you can assist students if they have questions and concerns.
Sample rubric questions
These are examples of good and interesting rubric questions. The first four are completely open text questions, which ask the students to provide written feedback. The last one is summative but also contains a formative aspect in asking students to argue.
- Find three places where the grammar is wrong. Explain why it is wrong and show how it could be done correctly.
- If you had to go back and improve your own submission after giving feedback to this submission, what would you change?
- Imagine that you are a film critic. What would your review of the movie be?
- Find one or more paragraphs that you think work well. Explain why.
- Did the submission include a good discussion?
- There was no discussion.
- Discussion could be better. Explain what is lacking.
- Discussion was good. Explain what was good.