Why use Peer Feedback, Part 2

Peer feedback is at its most effective in a positive classroom culture where learning is valued and encouraged.

But how to develop such a culture?  Research suggests several ways to do this:

  • Clearly articulate classroom expectations.  This means that students know what kinds of behaviour are appropriate and why, as well as the kinds of behaviour that are not supported by the group.  Such expectations are ideally negotiated by the class as a group and, again ideally, they reflect the ethos of the school.
  • Ensure that students feel comfortable and supported by their peers.  This means that they respect each other’s opinions and feel able to ‘have a go’ rather than sit back, afraid of making a mistake. They know that everyone recognises that learning can come as result of mistakes.
  • Be aware of social and emotional learning strategies and incorporate these into everyday activities to increase empathy and understanding of others’ viewpoints.
  • Encourage risk-taking and intervene when ‘put-downs’ occur. This means that students are offered activities that provide opportunities to take those risks, to hypothesise and test their hypotheses with the help of peer feedback.  It also means that the teacher is alert to the ways in which ‘put-downs’ occur:  a roll of the eyes, a turning away, a sigh – understanding that these subtle put-downs can be just as damaging as the more obvious verbal comment.
  • Provide students with activities that both require and develop cooperation, and explicitly teach strategies to encourage cooperation. For example, teach the language of negotiation and support, including asking clarifying questions, and identify the various roles that group members can play – both positive and negative.
  • Make learning explicit by identifying learning intentions and sharing success criteria.
  • Teach the language of feedback and use role-play to coach students in its use.
  • Consider the physical configuration of the classroom.  Does it foster easy interaction between students? Can the configuration be easily changed to allow for paired and group activities?

Consider using some of these peer feedback techniques:

Two stars and a wish
In this technique student  identifies two things that a peer has done well (stars), in relation to the success criteria, and explains why.  “You engaged your audience well because you made eye contact with a lot of different people and you used hand gestures and facial expressions.”

The student the expresses a wish for what the peer might do next time.  “I wish that next time you might speak a little more slowly because sometimes I couldn’t understand what you were saying.”

The feedback sandwich
In this technique the student ‘sandwiches’ a suggestion for improvement between two positive comments.  For example

Positive comment: “You engaged your audience well because you made eye contact with a lot of different people.”
Suggestion for improvement: “Perhaps next time you could also speak a little more slowly so that we can understand you better.”
Positive comment: “Your use of facial expressions and hand gestures was very good.  You made us laugh.”

Medals and missions
When a student identifies what a peer has done well, he/she is awarding a ‘medal’.
When a student identifies what a peer needs to improve and offers advice about how to do this, he/she is suggesting a ‘mission’. (Geoff Petty)

Plus, minus and what’s next?
This technique can be used with younger students. The student looks at a peer’s work to identify a positive achievement in relation to the success criteria (the plus) and an area for improvement (the minus). He/she then makes a suggestion as to how the peer can improve. (What’s next?)

Traffic lights
Students use a green highlighter in the margin of a draft piece of writing to indicate success criteria achieved, or an orange highlighter to indicate where improvement is needed. The suggestions for improvement are delivered orally.

Feedback using technology
VoiceThread is an example of a software program that can be used to provide peer feedback.  Student upload their completed work (documents or pictures) and others record oral comments.

Googledocs allows students to create a document or a presentation which can then be edited or commented on by their peers.

A class wiki or blog provides a forum where students can publish and comment on each other’s work.

Edmodo is a software program that allows the uploading of documents and the recording of feedback.

Use an ipad to add voice comments.  Although this article is about teacher feedback, the process could easily be adapted for peer feedback.

Teach students a variety of ways to provide feedback and then allow them to negotiate the form they will use.

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.