Students can learn a lot from peer assessment, whether they look at each other’s written work (papers, lab reports, informal reaction papers); presentations (speeches, panel participation, online discussion facilitation); performances (art, athletics, theatrical musical); or other contributions (group work). The ultimate responsibility for grading remains with teachers, but students can offer all sorts of formative feedback—comments, ratings, completed checklists, assessment against criteria, or hypothetical grading. Some teachers use peer feedback in grade calculations.
This column revisits the sizeable benefits of peer review while recognizing that the strategy also comes with challenges. Students don’t always enthusiastically endorse peer review or automatically do it well. Next week I will look at the challenges of peer review and propose ways of overcoming them.
Peer review works! That’s where the benefits begin. It improves student performance. Students learn from it. Li et al. (2020) collected 350 studies of peer review completed between 1950 and 2017. They were able to measure effects in 58 of them and “found that peer assessment in general has a nontrivial positive effect on students’ learning performance” (p. 204). Numerically, that meant that “compared to students who did not receive peer assessment, students who did receive peer assessment showed a .291 standard deviation unit improvement in their general performance” (p. 202). This research review considered a wide range of different peer activities across many institutional settings and disciplines and with all kinds of students.
It’s interesting to speculate on why peer review works. What’s unique about the input it provides? Perhaps it’s as simple as the fact that most people care about what their peers think. They pay attention to the feedback. Those in authority, like teachers and bosses, may deliver feedback with larger implications, but they’re more distant, possibly less trusted than peers. I am reminded of the work of Min (2006), whose interesting study design found that 90 percent of subsequent paper revisions were triggered by peer feedback and the quality of the revisions was significantly higher than before the intervention.
Peer review activities in college courses develops a skill with wide application. In most jobs, professionals assess the work of other professionals; they evaluate the job performance of those doing work for them and sometimes that of those they work for. In the personal realm, friends and family ask for or need feedback. Being able to accurately assess and offer constructive feedback has value in professional, community, social, and personal contexts. And it’s not a skill folks are born with. It must be learned. In college courses, students can be taught and then given opportunities to practice with beneficial learning the result.
Peer review also improves the accuracy of self-assessments. A variety of previous research documents this benefit. The work of Nicol et al. (2014) illustrates how preparing peer reviews feeds back to self-assessments. In survey and interview data from students enrolled in an engineering design course, “Students reported that reviewing involves a comparative process wherein they evaluate each peer assignment against an internal representation of their own work” (p. 116). In a focus group, one student described the process this way: “I think when you are reviewing, it’s more a self-learning process, you’re teaching yourself. I can see somebody’s done that and that’s a strength, and I should maybe try and incorporate that somehow in my work. Whereas getting (teacher) feedback, you’re kind of getting told what to do . . . You’re not really thinking for yourself” (p. 115).
Peer review has some teacher benefits as well. If the peer review is happening in the context of group activities, feedback provided by peers offers teachers insight into the activities and happenings within groups. Peer review doesn’t minimize teachers grading responsibilities, but it enables them to provide students with additional feedback—from a different perspective, with more details, and perhaps with a change in focus.
Taken together, that’s an impressive set of benefits. When students experience them, they see firsthand the value of peer inputs and discover that they can provide constructive feedback. The caveats: the benefits don’t accrue automatically, plus peer review has the potential to harm.
Li, H., Xiong, Y., Hunter, C. V., Guo, X., & Tywoniw, R. (2020). Does peer assessment promote student learning? A meta-analysis. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 45(2), 193–211. https://doi.org/10.1080/02602938.2019.1620679
Min, H.-T. (2006). The effects of trained peer review on EFL students’ revisions and writing quality. Journal of Second Language Writing, 15(2), 118–141. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jslw.2006.01.003
Nicol, D., Thomson, A., & Breslin, C. (2014). Rethinking feedback practices in higher education: A peer review perspective. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 39(1), 102–122. https://doi.org/10.1080/02602938.2013.795518