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Author: Karyn Holt, PhD

Learning takes place when students solve problems beyond their current developmental level. Often peer support is needed for the student to get over the hurdles to accomplish a task (DePew & Holt, 2018; Schell, 2016; Vygotsky, 1978). Peer assessment is one means of support that helps students improve their work and think more deeply about their learning.

Online instructors can make peer assessment a part of student projects, whether papers, presentations, or videos. Students review one another’s work at different points in the project’s development to provide feedback that guides revision and helps improve the project. To allow for successive stages of review and revisions, instructors can chunk term-length assignments into multiple smaller assignments that then come together into one large assignment due at the end of the term. In the case of a term paper, perhaps the first step is a literature review, the next a research question, and the next a methodology identification, with each having separate due dates, allowing for peer review of each assignment.

Students are put into pairs rather than into larger groups to reduce problems with group work, such as time spent organizing group meetings, students’ working at different paces with different schedules for availability to meet, and students’ missing deadlines. The pairs either stay the same throughout the course or change for each project—what I call collaborative pairs (CP) and differing pairs (DP), respectively. An advantage of CPs is that the familiarity breeds accountability because each student feels a certain responsibility to their partner. If my objective is to provide a wider variety of thought, I use DPs.

To guide their work, I require students post their group work on a dedicated LMS discussion board—one board for each pair. Once peer groups have formed, the members select the technology they will use to review each other’s projects, an approach students report they prefer to being assigned a technology to use. Some students write their reviews and then post them to the discussion board, while others record their voices using an app such as Vocaroo, which both records and hosts the recording. Students then link to their recordings on the discussion board. Others record screencast or webcam videos using software such as Screencast-O-Matic, which conveniently has its own video hosting site, and again link to their recordings on the discussion board. One group in my course decided to meet synchronously via Zoom, record their conversation, and then post a link to the recording to the discussion board. A synchronous meeting has the advantage of students’ being able to ask one another questions. The disadvantage is that students need to find a common time to meet.

I have experimented with both assigned and self-selected pairings, and while none of the students involved knew each other before taking my courses, those in self-selected pairs expressed satisfaction at being able to choose their partners. Moreover, being able to choose the technology they used increased students’ self-direction and decreased their cognitive load. They usually chose technology that one group member was familiar with. Students could concentrate on the substance of their reviews rather than on learning a new tool. Providing choices for students also allowed students to put more effort into their projects and led to increased satisfaction with the outcome of their projects as well as the course.

Faculty often use group projects to develop students’ collaboration skills, an important soft skill in today’s workplace. The technology-mediated reviews further knowledge about digital literacy, which is another important workforce skill. Adding a layer of student self-direction generates increased student effort and better student success outcomes, namely learning. Together, these elements make group work a valuable addition to any online course.


DePew, D., & Holt, K. (2018). Collaborating pairs in online graduate education. In K. Enomoto, R. Warner, & C. Nygaard (Eds.), Innovative teaching and learning practices in higher Education (pp. 19–32). Oxfordshire, England: Libri Publishing.

Schell, J. (2016, June 7). Increasing student engagement, by design [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://peerinstruction.wordpress.com/2016/06/07/increasing-student-engagement-by-design/

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development for higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Weimer, M. (2019, September 23). Can students misjudge their own learning? Retrieved from https://www.teachingprofessor.com/for-those-who-teach/can-students-self-perceptions-of-learning-be-wrong

Karyn Holt, PhD, CNM, is a professor in residence at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, School of Nursing.