Peer assessment is the evaluation of students' work by other students of equal status. Students often undertake peer assessment in conjunction with formal self-assessment. They reflect on their own efforts, and extend and enrich this reflection by exchanging feedback on their own and their peers' work.
Peer assessment is a powerful meta-cognitive tool. It engages students in the learning process and develops their capacity to reflect on and critically evaluate their own learning and skill development. It supports the development of critical thinking and interpersonal and other skills, as well as enhancing understanding within the field of knowledge of a discipline.
Peer and group assessment are also often undertaken together. Typically, the members of a group assess the performance of their peers in terms of their contribution to the group's work.
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Dr Louise Lutze-Mann, from the School of Biotechnology and Biomolecular Sciences, explains why and how she implements peer assessment for drafts of student assignments.
You can use peer assessment formatively (that is, without grading it), or summatively. Early in the course, it's best to use formal assessment criteria and assessment instruments designed by the teacher, but as students' competence increases, you can involve them in negotiating the criteria, or include criteria determined by others such as industry professionals.
Peer assessment has the following benefits:
- It engages students in the learning process and develops their capacity to reflect on and evaluate their own learning and skill development.
- You can use it to promote, and provide evidence of, the development of generic skills and attributes:
- working cooperatively
- thinking critically
- giving constructive feedback
- learning from critical appraisal received from others
- managing one's own learning autonomously
- developing interpersonal skills
- developing an awareness of group dynamics.
- Particularly when structured marking schemes are used, peer assessment has an acceptably high level of validity and reliability. Although students tend to award higher marks than tutors, they do not tend to be any more generous than external examiners.
- Peer assessment is usually a positive experience for students. They appreciate its value in exposing a wide range of learning activities to critical and more-public review, including class discussions and debates, extended writing tasks, oral and digital presentations, project-management processes and demonstrations of leadership.
- In the context of assessing group work tasks, peer assessment can promote a sense of fairness, by illuminating individual contributions and encouraging greater commitment to the group's effort.
- With formalised peer-assessment processes, students can become more active agents in assessment procedures. They can also gain insight into the complexities of interpreting and grading evidence of learning, and see more clearly the processes underpinning scholarly review and publication. Students thus "feel ownership of the assessment (and learning) process rather than alienated or victimised by it" (Nulty, n.d.).
Peer assessment can present the following challenges:
- If it does not contribute to the summative grade, students may undervalue its significance for their learning and avoid seriously engaging with it.
- If it does count towards the grade, it can raise social tensions and issues of loyalty. Students can be reluctant to criticise their peers; recipients may not consider peer feedback to be sufficiently objective.
- Many students don't think they have the expertise necessary to give feedback on the work of their peers. Or they may feel that the "expert" opinion of the tutor is more valuable than the opinion of a peer.
- Without adequate preparation or clear assessment criteria, peers can produce ratings based on uniformity, race and friendship. This can be a particular issue with group work: Dochy, Segers and Sluijsmans (1999) note the tendency to "friendship marking, resulting in over-marking (grade elevation); collusive marking, resulting in a lack of differentiation within groups; decibel marking, where individuals dominate groups and get the highest marks; and parasite marking, where students fail to contribute but benefit from group marks".
- Peers tend to award higher marks than do tutors, although they tend to be no more generous than external examiners.
- Unless the peer assessment process is carefully prepared, it can undermine the spirit of collaboration fostered by group work, by setting individuals up in competition with each other for marks.
Designing for peer assessment
Some specific strategies can assist in including peer assessment in the overall assessment design:
- Make it very clear to students why you are involving them in peer assessment, and how it will benefit their learning. Clarify this in terms of the intended learning outcomes and graduate attributes.
- Ensure that peer-assessment activities are supported by detailed and explicit criteria and standards in the form of a rubric. If you engage students in the process of developing the criteria, they will gain a much clearer understanding of how assessment is carried out, and experience an increased sense of ownership.
- Before you employ peer assessment in high-stakes formal assessment for grades, develop students' peer-assessing skills using structured formative learning activities. This will accustom students to exposing their work to scrutiny, giving them safe opportunities to improve their performance using informal feedback, while developing their competence as assessors.
- Make the peer-assessment process anonymous, especially if students are still new at it, so that students need not be aware that they are marking the work of friends.
- Only use peer assessment to contribute to grading where students are sufficiently knowledgeable and well prepared to make informed judgements about the work of their peers.
- Complement peer-assessment processes with a formal and explicitly stated moderation process so that students can see that grading is reliable even while students have a significant role in it.
Develop peer-assessment criteria with students
To ensure that students reflect critically and early during a large, summative assessment task such as a report or essay:
- Divide the class into small groups with three or more members.
- Have students present to their group a short draft of their work to date.
- Ask the group to give informal feedback to their peers on their progress
- You can also have the group provide a formal assessment based on, for example, how well points are supported by evidence, as well as the style and presentation of the draft.
Build in back-feedback
Give an active role to the students being assessed by letting them respond to the assessment. For example:
- Students engaged in an extended writing task anonymously exchange work for feedback at a few points during the drafting process. Rather than grading each other's work, each student assesses their peer's performance as a reviewer.
- An early submission in a semester-long group project is reviewed by two other groups, who give feedback. The lecturer assesses the quality of feedback given, and this contributes to the group mark of the feedback-providers.
Allow the group to mark its members
One process for formally assessing group work is for the teacher to assign a mark to each group, then for the students to assign an individual mark to each member of their group, based on the contribution they perceive each to have made to the group's work. A major contributor would receive a mark higher than the group mark and a lesser contributor would receive a lower mark. An average for each student can be generated from the range of marks their peers give them.
Base the lecturer's grade on peer assessments
Students each allocated a set number of essays written by peers for review, as well as a set of communal criteria (relating to, for example, readability, personal conclusions, referencing, examples and case studies). They assess each essay according to the criteria and assign a positive or negative judgement for each. This enables a numerical mark to be awarded, based on overall criteria. Students then provide more-expansive feedback. The lecturer analyses all the feedback given and makes any adjustments they deem necessary.
Students with language or learning difficulties may be particularly challenged by peer-assessment activities, as may those from educational backgrounds in which student critique is not encouraged. But rather than seeing such students' differences as obstacles, consider the value of peer assessment as being amplified by the diversity of backgrounds and perceptions students bring to the feedback process. Emphasise this viewpoint by strongly guiding the peer-assessment process to highlight the benefits of divergent views. It may be helpful if you set up early peer-assessment activities as group activities, so that less experienced or less able students can learn from their peers.
- A number of online tools provide a structured framework to support the use of peer assessment through customisable rubrics that students can use to anonymously rate the performance of others in their team, and provide text feedback if desired.
- Moodle offers a tool for peer assessment.
- For smaller classes, you can also use discussion forums (with anonymous contributions allowed) to distribute and post reviews.
In the following two films, COFA's Dr Arianne Rourke discusses her strategies for using peer assessment, in both face-to-face and online environments. Her MA Art Administration course is conducted wholly online and utilises peer and self-assessment for 30% of the course mark.
Strategies for peer assessment
Online peer assessment
In these four videos, Associate Professor Julian Cox discusses peer review.
UNSW Teaching Gateway – How to use the Moodle Workshop tool for peer review and self assessment
Dochy, F., Segers, M. and Sluijsmans, D. (1999). The Use of Self-, Peer- and Co-assessment in Higher Education: A Review. Studies in Higher Education 24(3), 331-350. https://doi.org/10.1080/03075079912331379935
Ibarra-Sáiz, M.S., Rodríguez-Gómez, G. & Boud, D. (2020). Developing student competence through peer assessment: the role of feedback, self-regulation and evaluative judgement. Higher Education, 80, 137-156. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10734-019-00469-2
Nulty, D.D. (n.d.), A guide to peer and self assessment: approaches and practice strategies for academics. Griffith Institute for Higher Education, Griffith University.
Race, P. (2001) The Lecturer's Toolkit (2nd ed.). London: Kogan Page.