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Author: Maryellen Weimer

In last week’s column, I cautioned that while peer review has many benefits, these aren’t automatic, and there’s also the potential for harm. Here’s a rundown of the challenges that come with the strategy and ways to minimize them. The peer-review activities themselves can be designed responsive to what makes them challenging for students and teachers.

Students lacking peer-review experience don’t usually endorse it with much enthusiasm; reluctance better describes their response. The prospect of passing judgment on a peer causes discomfort. They don’t feel qualified. Teachers, with their great expertise, evaluate their work, not students who know next to nothing about writing, participation in group work, or designing bridge supports.

Careful identification of what students will assess helps them overcome their discomfort. For beginners, assessing specifics—behaviors as opposed to attitudes—is easiest. “Did the group member regularly contribute to group discussions?” “Does the lab report explain the results?” Beginning peer reviewers get over their lack of qualifications if they are given focused prompts that request their perspectives. “Did the opening paragraph prepare you for the rest of the paper?” “What would you say about the use of color in the graphic design?”

Students can misuse peer review. They do so in two ways. First, because they don’t trust the process, they opt to avoid potential repercussions by giving everyone high marks. Peer assessment becomes a back-scratching event where students do unto each other only nice things in hopes of receiving the same. Second, students use the process to get even. If the perception is that someone hasn’t done their fair share, or a peer says something they don’t like and ratings are anonymous, the reviewer can strike back with a low rating.

The back-scratching response is easily cured by having students rate and rank what they’re assessing. In a group, the evaluator can give the “excellent” rating as many times as they want, but only one group member can be ranked number one, two, and so on. If students are assessing work completed by multiple persons, only a specified number of them get the top rating.

Giving undeserved or excessively low ratings can be resolved by tracking the feedback an individual receives and not passing on or including in the grade outlier feedback. If possible, the teacher should discuss those ratings with the student giving them.

Students regularly struggle with delivering critical feedback, whether in writing or face-to-face. Often, they don’t know how to share it constructively. And they don’t like to get it. They tend to overreact, flush with anger, feel embarrassed, and draw sweeping conclusions. Yet corrective feedback is essential to improvement.

What helps here is designing peer-review activities that include opportunities to practice hypothetically. If the teacher identifies some of the common problems in narrative papers, or group discussions or film critiques, then students can propose ways of describing those problems and discuss the merits of various suggestions. Students can be asked to share how receiving a certain critical message would make them feel.

Peer-review activities can be designed with critical feedback components—for instance, “three future-focused suggestions for improvement must be included in your assessment.” For students without much experience critiquing, written feedback is easier than face-to-face, and anonymous feedback provides still more cover. With anonymous feedback, the balance of power rests with the evaluator. The recipient neither the chance to ask questions nor the option to appeal. By the time college ends, students should have learned to own what they say about the work of others.

It is difficult for students (and many of us) to provide negative verbal feedback. Students (and some of us) prefer to talk around the problems, not say directly what’s at issue; offer hints; and hope the recipient deciphers the intended message. Or, if they name the problem, they promptly diminish its importance: “Really, you don’t always talk too much in the group, just sometimes.” Simple principles and practice help. Put the criticism in context: “In this paper, I’m not finding transitions between paragraphs.” Balance the feedback: “I didn’t find transitions, but I loved your examples.” Focus the feedback on the future: “Next time, you might try following the lab report outline more closely.”

Early in my teaching career, when I was trying to help students understand the value of constructive feedback, whether given or gotten, a student offered this solution: “Why don’t we just adopt the golden rule of feedback? Give unto others feedback in the ways you’d like to receive it.” What great advice! It helps achieve the benefits of peer review described in the previous column and addresses the challenges explored here.

Further reading

“Improving How Students Give and Receive Peer Feedback”