Put it simply, peer assessment

woman in black shirt and blue denim jeans writing on white paper

We live in a world of constant assessment. From the first moment in our lives we learn that every action we make is in some way evaluated by others, and we rely on the approval or disapproval of others to tell us if our action was perceived in a positive or negative manner. This type of feedback is essential for learning and understanding the world around us.

Feedback can take many forms. In today’s socially distanced world, social media is playing an increasing role in how we communicate with each other, giving us more and more incentives to “like” or “share” or “recommend” each other’s ideas and opinions. 

Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none.

William Shakespeare, All’s Well That Ends Well

But how much do we trust these feedbacks? If somebody clicks a like button on our photo or a blog post, what does that mean? Is the “like” meant as a social encouragement, or is it a seal of approval from that person, indicating some kind of quality assessment?

Assessing, then giving feedback

Let’s take a step back and actually see what is the difference between the two words – “feedback” and “assessment”. Put it simply, when we look at someone’s work or actions and we examine them in some way (compare them, analyze them critically), we are conducting an “assessment”. If we communicate this assessment to the person, we are giving them our “feedback”. 

Peer feedback is a quality assurance mechanism 

This natural process is formalized in professional communities. We often have seniors give feedback to juniors to help them expand their skill set and build their knowledge. In science, we speak about feedback given between peers, members of the scientific community of equal standing. Peer review is an essential part of the scientific process. It consists of asking peers for feedback on the research results before publishing them. Originally, this practice was more informal than today. Scientists wrote letters to each other to ask for advice and to report their findings. Today, peer review’s purpose helps to approve or improve the work that will be then published in academic journals and help advance the understanding of a specific topic.

Feedback turns good into better and better into best.

Frank Sonnenberg, Listen to Your Conscience: That’s Why You Have One

But let’s get back to learning from the beginning of the story. We have always learned through feedback – from the first words we spoke, to the first social interactions we had. Later on, in school we received feedback from our teacher. In most cases it consisted of getting a grade for our homework or exam. We are very familiar with getting this type of feedback from teachers, or superiors in general. But what about getting assessed by our peers, those of the same ranking as us?

When peers evaluate each other

When it comes to assessment of knowledge and skills in education, we can distinguish summative and formative assessment. Summative assessment is usually the end of a specific teaching unit, where students get a certain score or a grade. Formative assessment counts for all the evaluations that happen before that final assessment, that help a student develop skills and/or realize what knowledge they are still lacking. Check out a great summary of these concepts by University of Sheffield here.  

Peer assessment is becoming more and more common, both as a way to allow students to evaluate each other’s work before the final assessments and as a way to give students an opportunity to contribute to the summative assessment of their peer’s work. 

Is peer assessment valuable for learning?

Many questions arise when students evaluate each other. Is their opinion valid, compared to the opinion of their teacher, who is considered an expert? Will the students be able to give an unbiased evaluation, and not be too generous or too critical towards their peers? 

Peer assessment is oftentimes used in situations where the teacher cannot look at the mid-term work (or even the final work) of students, such as in large classes. With the emergence of MOOCs (massive open online courses) where thousands of participants take part in the same course, peer assessment is the only way to ensure all participants receive timely feedback on more complex assignments. The online environment questions even more the validity of peer assessments.

So is peer assessment a valuable method in learning environments? What does the research say? And what are the recommended practices to make it more beneficial?

Several studies address these questions, so of which you can check below, each of the summarized briefly to highlight the main conclusions.