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.

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