6 ways peer assessment can enhance student learning online

How Peer Assessment Impacts Professors and Students

Regardless of its well-established ability to develop self-reflection, resourcefulness and gains not seen with external evaluation (Pintrich 1995; Pintrich and Zusho 2007; Dow et al. 2012), peer assessment is still viewed with some skepticism by many faculty, who remain reticent to put it into practice.

“Part of why I don't think other colleagues pick up on peer assessment is that they know it's a tough sell to students,” says Alexander Gainer, an associate economics professor at the University of Alberta. It’s more work than many students want to put in, he continues. At Dalhousie University, professor Matt Numer concurs, adding that many of his colleagues are also “scared that peer assessment will make them lose control of the class.”

Peer assessment does change the role of teachers in the classroom. In a 2013 Stanford University/Coursera paper entitled “Peer and Self Assessment in Massive Online Classes,” researchers found that when peer assessment provides the primary evaluative function, the instructor’s role shifts to emphasize coaching, not grading. That’s why it’s important to establish “explicit grading criteria (especially in advance) [that] helps convey to students that grading is fair, consistent, and based on the quality of their work.”

When peer assessment provides the primary evaluative function, the instructor’s role shifts to emphasize coaching, not grading.

The knock-on effect is that professors will end up spending more time articulating the grading criteria than doing the grading. To effectively scale peer assessment, “teachers should plan on revising rubrics as they come across unexpected types of strong and weak work. After revision, these rubrics can scale well for both students and other teachers to use.” (Kulkarni et al. 2013)

“You end up having to do more work on the front end to design good activities for students,” says Numer, “but then in many of my classes I'm just wandering around while they're doing work. If I'm the one that's in the classroom and bored because they are researching and doing whatever, that's the end game. You should be teaching yourself out of a job.”

That newly freed-up time affords professors the opportunity to do more personalized coaching, and to focus on the students who need their help the most.

One of the Stanford researchers’ most remarkable results reported that students felt that assessing others’ work was “an extremely valuable learning activity.”

Peer assessment is a win-win for students and the professors who are bold enough to put it into practice: Students get to learn invaluable critical thinking skills by teaching others, while professors who surrender some of their traditional assessment tasks to students find themselves with more time to work directly with students. The ideas that hold students and professors back from trying out peer assessment—fear of more work for students; loss of control for professors—are the very things that are solved by it.

For faculty looking to put peer assessment techniques into practice, there’s a plethora of good reasons to start now. Here’s six of them:

Student learning improves when they provide assessment to peers

When students are asked to provide constructive feedback via peer instruction, the act itself engages them in complex problem solving—they have to diagnose problems and suggest solutions, actions that are the hallmarks of higher-order thinking. Studies have shown that the act of delivering elaborate feedback that describes identifiable problems and proposed scaffolded solutions is the aspect of peer assessment that benefits student learning the most (Topping et al. 2013). Lundstrom and Baker (2009) found that assessing a peer's written work was more beneficial than being assessed by a peer, and some research raises the possibility that the benefit of peer assessment comes more from assessing, rather than being assessed (Usher 2018).

Students get faster feedback from more diverse sources

Finding time to deliver frequent, meaningful feedback is one of faculty’s greatest challenges—it’s often cited as one the main factors limiting students’ opportunity to practice writing and get feedback on their work (Cho and Schunn 2007). With peer assessment, students can receive feedback on multiple assignments in a timely manner from a variety of perspectives—free from the power dynamics inherent in a teacher-student relationship—adding a diversity of viewpoints to their learning. 

Active environments offer more opportunities to improve

The feedback process involved in peer assessment encourages active learning—students aren’t simply being passive recipients of instructor feedback, they’re producing and sharing it themselves (Liu and Carless 2006; Cartney 2010; Nicol 2011). And, since the feedback can be delivered more quickly, it offers students opportunities to improve their work through revision or by applying what they’ve learned to future assignments. The opportunity to apply what they’ve learned through practice and quality feedback will positively impact student learning (Nicol and Macfarlane-Dick 2006).

Peer assessment improves metacognition and increases independence

Peer assessment can be an act of humility—by assessing the work of their peers, students glean a better understanding of their own work, honing their metacognitive capacity to recognize holes in their own understanding. Rather than overestimating or underestimating their own work, the act of peer assessment can train students to self-correct and become less dependent on feedback from instructors, making them more independent in their learning (Nicol, Thomson and Breslin 2014).

By comparing their work to their peers students become self-reflective

Anytime a student is asked to assess the work of their peers, they’re also actively comparing it to their own by referencing assignment guidelines and criteria, instructor expectations and perceptions of quality (Baker 2016; Nicol, Thomson and Breslin 2014). By becoming critical readers of others’ writing, students are also developing a better understanding of how readers might interpret the work they produce themselves (Cho and Cho 2011; MacArthur 2010). The comparative process encourages self-improvement and clarity of purpose in writing.

Peer assessment helps develop the lifelong skills students will need to succeed

As preparation for life outside of school, peer assessment helps students develop the transferable skills they’ll need to succeed. The process prepares them to be able to critically review and engage with the work of their peers, enables them to be able to deliver feedback in constructive, positive ways and to learn how to incorporate the feedback they receive from others into their own work without losing their cool. These are the very skills that are in demand in the knowledge economy—by honing them in an academic environment, students will be better prepared to function independently for the duration of their lives. 

Research strongly supports the use of peer assessment as a formative practice for improving overall academic performance. Overall, findings indicate that peer assessment can be more effective than teacher assessment. Additionally, with the shift to online or remote learning, studies have shown that peer assessment online can significantly reduce the logistical burden of implementing peer assessment (Tannacito and Tuzi 2002). See how hundreds of educators are using Kritik for peer assessment activities here.

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Baker, K. M. (2016). Peer review as a strategy for improving students’ writing process. Active Learning in Higher Education, 17(3), 179-192.

Cartney, P. (2010). Exploring the use of peer assessment as a vehicle for closing the gap between feedback given and feedback used, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 35:5, 551-564.

Cho, Y.H., Cho, K. (2011). Peer reviewers learn from giving comments. Instr Sci 39, 629–643.

Cho, K. and MacArthur, C. (2010). Learning by reviewing. Journal of Educational Psychology, 103(1), 73-84.

Cho, K. and Schunn, C. (2007). Scaffolded writing and rewriting in the discipline: A web-based reciprocal peer review system. Computers and Education, 48(3), 409-426.

Double, K.S., McGrane, J.A. & Hopfenbeck, T.N. (2020). The Impact of Peer Assessment on Academic Performance: A Meta-analysis of Control Group Studies. Educ Psychol Rev32, 481–509.

Kulkarni, C. et al. (2013). Peer and Self Assessment in Massive Online Classes. ACM Trans. Comput.- Hum. Interact. 9, 4, Article 39, 31 pages.

Liu, N.F. and Carless, D. (2006). Peer feedback: the learning element of peer assessment, Teaching in Higher Education, 11:3, 279-290.

Lundstrom, K., & Baker, W. (2009). To give is better than to receive: The benefits of peer review to the reviewer's own writing. Journal of Second Language Writing, 18(1), 30–43.

Nicol, D. (2011). Good designs for written feedback. Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research and Theories for College and University Teachers. 13th edition. International edition. Wadsworth Cengage Learning. 

Nicol, D. and Macfarlane‐Dick, D. (2006). Formative assessment and self‐regulated learning: a model and seven principles of good feedback practice, Studies in Higher Education, 31:2, 199-218.

Nicol, D., Thomson, A., Breslin, C. (2013). Rethinking feedback practices in higher education: a peer review perspective. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 39(1), 102-122.

Pintrich, P.R. (1995). Understanding self-regulated learning. New directions for teaching and learning 1995, 63, 3–12.

Pintrich, P. and Zusho, A. (2007). Student motivation and self-regulated learning in the college classroom. The scholarship of teaching and learning in higher education: An evidence-based perspective, 731–810.

Tannacito, T., & Tuzi, F. (2002). A comparison of e-response: Two experiences, one conclusion. Kairos, 7(3), 1–14.

Topping, K. (2013). Peers as a source of formative and summative assessment. SAGE Handbook of Research on Classroom Assessment. 395-412. 

Usher, N. (2018). Learning about academic writing through holistic peer assessment. (Unpiblished doctoral thesis), University of Oxford, Oxford, UK.

Carine Marette
Carine is the Co-Founder of Kritik.