Why use peer feedback?

Peer feedback is not the same as peer assessment. Peer assessment is in fact an example of summative assessment: it results in a grade. (Peer assessment is not without its problems: it can be perceived by students to lack reliability – “I’d rather have my teacher assess me” – and can cause conflict between students and a sense of injustice when the allotted grade is lower than expected.)

Peer feedback, on the other hand,  is a formative assessment strategy and an important aspect of cooperative learning. To be effective, it needs exactly the same features as teacher feedback: that is, the use of a set of pre-established criteria (success criteria) to identify

  • what the student has done well, and
  • the areas in which the student could improve.

Most importantly, peer feedback, like effective teacher feedback, offers advice about how to improve.

The success criteria are a crucial aspect of peer feedback not only because they provide a focus for the feedback, but also because they focus attention on the completed task, rather than on the student.  And if the students have been involved in creating the success criteria in the first place, then their understanding will be that much better and their engagement that much greater.

Often peer feedback is provided orally, but if ICT is used, it might be oral, written or a combination of both forms.  Teacher modelling of the use of appropriate oral and written language is an important step in ensuring that students use the strategy effectively.

  • Use anonymous work from another class or another year as the example when you are teaching the language of feedback.  Make sure that the success criteria are not too numerous – and that they focus on aspects other than spelling and punctuation. (When students don’t have success criteria to help shape their feedback they often default to looking for ‘mistakes’ to comment on, rather than providing much more useful feedback about a peer’s writing.)
  • Emphasise that it’s not just what you say but the way you say it, as well. Show students how to avoid negative language.  Get them to role-play the rephrasing of a negative comment into one that is more constructively positive.
  • Teach students the use of language constructions that draw attention to the success criteria: “I can see that you have achieved this success criteria, but I’m not sure about this one.  What do you think?”
  • Demonstrate how to ask a question, rather than just make a statement: “Why did you use this word/adjective/adverb/phrase to describe how your character felt?”  When looking at the anonymous work, students might be asked to jot down their initial responses.  They can then work in pairs to shape these into questions.
  • Discourage the use of the word ‘but’.  A compliment followed immediately by ‘but’ serves to devalue the positive and causes the listener to hear only the negative. Instead of saying, “I like the way you’ve described your character, but you need to ‘show’ more and not just ‘tell'”, you might say: “I liked the way you’ve described your character.  She seems to be very strong.  Do you think you could include some dialogue to show this as well?”
  • Encourage students to move beyond general statements such as “I like the way you started your narrative” by always supplying a reason. “I like the way you started your narrative because the words you used made me think that this was going to be a scary story.”
  • Encourage students to use the appropriate metalanguage when provided feedback.  This ensures that the meaning is a shared one. “Do you think you could use a complex sentence here to give the reader more detail about where they are?” (There is room here, ideally, for some peer teaching if the receiver of the feedback does not understand the terminology.)

Why is peer feedback useful? 

For a start, peer feedback has the advantage of being timely: students can get feedback exactly when they need it, rather than wait for their turn with the teacher.

And, more importantly, it fosters self-evaluation and self-monitoring, both of which are vital to successful learning. These skills are further developed if students are asked to consider and evaluate the feedback they received from peers.  They could be encouraged to explain which feedback they acted on and why, and which feedback they rejected, along with their reasons for doing so.  Time spent doing this, far from being time-consuming, will in fact provide you with further useful insights into your students’ thinking. This information can be later used in a formative way.

The act of giving feedback to others also has learning benefits. When giving feedback to peers, students need to read, to analyse, to question, to suggest changes and perhaps also to reflect on how their own work compares. They need to engage with the demands of the task and to understand how the success criteria look in practice. Peer feedback, then, demands the exercise of many other skills additional to those used in the actual completion of the task.

Some research argues that peer feedback is a necessary precursor to self-assessment – the ability to evaluate one’s work and to monitor progress and to proceed to a desirable state of independence as a learner.

Next week’s blog will explore some peer feedback techniques and discuss the kind of classroom culture that facilitates effective peer feedback.

Please post a comment if you have something to share.

What does Assessment for Learning have to do with student wellbeing?

My recent involvement in a project that focuses on student wellbeing has led me to consider the ways in which Assessment for Learning strategies provide structure and support for this important work of schools and teachers.

When at school, students identify primarily as learners, and so their engagement with learning is a key ingredient in the creation of their wellbeing.  Without engagement, students lack motivation; without motivation it is difficult for them to experience success in their learning – and lack of success can lead to issues of self-esteem and to negative behaviour.

There are many positive ways in which schools seek to promote students’ engagement with their learning, and the use of Assessment for Learning strategies by teachers in the classroom is one of them.

The explicit communication of expectations promotes student understanding, so therefore the strategy of sharing learning intentions and success criteria is an important one.  If students know what it is that they are expected to learn, and know also how they to tell whether or not they have been successful in their learning, then they are much more likely to be motivated.  They are much more likely to be motivated than those students who do not have that knowledge and who, as a result, feel that their learning is in the hands of arbitrary teachers who might or might not approve of what they  have done.  They know where to direct their efforts and are far less likely to find that they have been ‘on the wrong track’.

The use of effective teacher feedback provides a positive recognition of what students already know, understand and are able to do, and therefore also helps to promote self-esteem.  The students are able to see that their efforts have ‘paid off’.  That same effective teacher feedback helps students to see where there is a need for improvement and, importantly, offers specific advice about how to achieve that improvement.  The students are supported and scaffolded to the next stage. Effective teacher feedback is an important element in building a positive learning relationship with students.

When conducted in a classroom in which there is a positive collaborative culture, peer feedback further enhances student engagement.  Supported by their peers, students are less fearful of making mistakes, more connected to others, more engaged and more likely to contribute positively themselves.

In its broadest sense, self-assessment helps students to understand themselves as learners, to recognise how they best learn and to analyse their progress and needs as learners. Combined with the encouragement of a growth mindset that appreciates that intelligence is not a fixed commodity but one that develops with effort and ‘exercise’, this Assessment for Learning strategy complements the social and emotional understanding that is necessary to promote wellbeing.

Using these Assessment for Learning strategies in the classroom not only serves to improve student achievement, but also to reinforce all the other practices undertaken as part of the whole-school approach to the creation of student wellbeing.

Toni Glasson is the author of Improving Student Achievement, A Practical Guide to Assessment for Learning, Curriculum Press http://www.curriculumpress.edu.au/

‘I don’t know what to write …’

Generating ideas for writing is one of the challenges of teaching persuasive writing to primary school children.  It’s perhaps easy enough to teach the structure of the persuasive genre; it’s perhaps easy enough to teach the use of persuasive language and devices.  But if children have no ideas to write about, then it’s difficult for them to demonstrate their understanding of the textual features.

So what are some of the ways in which you can build content?

  • If the topic lends itself, show a video or explore a website together. Construct a set of shared notes as a result of the discussion.
  • Think. Pair. Share. In pairs, students discuss what they know about the topic and then share their thoughts and ideas with another pair.
  • As a whole class, brainstorm ideas about the topic, using a concept map. Use the concept map as a basis for organising various possible points of view on the topic.
  • Use todaysmeet and invite children to make comments and ask questions about the topic.  Use their input as the basis for a whole class discussion. Where children have offered ‘I think..’ or ‘I believe…’ comments, encourage them to support their arguments with evidence, and ask others to offer an opposing argument.
  • Ask students to work in pairs or groups to create a table to list ideas for and against a point of view. Have them share their table with another pair or group to build more content.
  • Use a ‘speed dating’ configuration in which children form two lines so that they stand opposite a partner.  Each pair then exchanges ideas on the topic during a specified period of time (eg, two minutes) before moving on to the next partner for a further exchange.
  • Where the topic lends itself, divide the class into groups that represent the stakeholders who are likely to have differing points of view on a particular topic.  For example, if the topic were ‘Students should be encouraged to walk or bicycle to school’, then the stakeholders might be the students, their parents, people interested in promoting a healthy society and teachers. Ask students to consider the point of view that each stakeholder is likely to hold, and the arguments that might be put forward to support each point of view.
  • Conduct a ‘lucky dip’. On an A4 sheet of paper each student writes a statement, an opinion or a question about the topic.  These are then placed in a box and students select one to which they respond.  (This activity could also be conducted electronically on a wiki or in a google doc.)  Students go back to the lucky dip several times, each time reading what has been written previously by other students and adding their own statement, opinion or question.
  • Have a class debate.  Half the class is designated to support one point of view on the topic, and the other half is asked to support the opposing view.

These activities, as well as building the necessary content to be used in a piece of persuasive writing, also encourage thinking skills, promote collaboration and, in some cases, provide opportunities to use speaking and listening skills.