Friday, 10 April 2009

Peer assessment

image: flickr chrissuderman

Not been on the blog for a while - holiday in Spain took precedence, I am afraid!

So today just a few thoughts about peer assessment as I am contemplating the topic for an assignment I am writing. This has led me to some interesting reading: predominantly Rethinking Assessment in Higher Education by Boud and Falchikov (2007: Routledge)

The main arguments against peer assessment seem to be concern for the reliability of the marking process and consequent need for training of the students. I would add that it is also deeply unpopular amongst students who generally would much rather hand over total responsibility for the process to tutors - so as not to be put in the position of sitting in judgement on their friends and colleagues ( or even on themselves: self assessment is no less unpopular in my experience).

In favour is the real world analogy - in their working lives students (and particularly work based/distance learning/ mature students) are already involved in the business of peer and colleague assessment in the course of their work - checking reports, carrying out staff appraisals, NVQ assessing, supervising another's practice.

Furthermore, there is evidence to suggest that learning with & from peers is the most natural way we pick up new ideas and information (that's certainly why I blog, Twitter, diigo and wiki every day!), which is certainly an argument for collaborative learning if not peer assessment. And it furthers life long learning: if we can turn to friends and colleagues for coaching and feedback as we approach new challenges in our work or even in our hobbies, we continue the process of reflection and informal learning almost without being aware of it.

So how do we make it work?

Some ideas from Nancy Falchikov include

  1. sharing the assessment criteria or

  2. even better, designing such criteria with the students

  3. training or scaffolding so that assessment skills are developed over time and not sprung as a surprise (and a big scary task) right at the end of the course

In another place in the book, there is a chapter on assessment and emotion. It is important not to forget how emotionally fraught assessment (judgement) is. Awaiting the marks on an assignment is deeply stressful for some: we feel we are being judged for who we are, not what we wrote/created. Getting those marks from a tutor allows us a measure of distance: we can be angry at them or the system if we are disappointed. Being judged by our peers may actually be more terrifying!!

In my own experience I have had mixed feelings about peer assessment. It was a system used widely in training for counsellors and because we worked in "triads" with peer observers of counselling practice at every workshop for three years, we all became relatively skilled at and relaxed with the practice. The final assessment with peer assessment on the practice portfolio was consequently less daunting.

However, at its worst, peer assessment puts the peer in the authority position and encourages them to take on the prevalent culture of whatever educational institution they have experienced: if their own experience of assessment is largely critical or punitive, peers will mirror this. Tutors therefore have to train students not only in the mechanics of assessment, but need also to model how it is applied - with fairness, humility, self awareness and respect for the student being assessed.

Hmmmm - training the institution's markers sounds like the FIRST step!!


  1. I would argue for a distinction between peer marking and peer assessment - taking a tougher line than Nancy Falchikov.

    Peer assessment must involve the collaborative determination of assessment criteria - otherwise it is just peer marking - which has its place but is much more limited.

    It does take time and attention to develop effective markers - peers or tutors particularly if the assessment is rich - ie allowing for creativity - but generally worthwhile.

  2. thanks David: I appreciate your feedback!

  3. Thank you very much for the discussion and the interesting post about sharing/setting assessment criteria with students. They already do much more peering here and there...

  4. Thank you for the very interesting post. My students are already peermarking/discussing here & there so much!

  5. thanks - I'd be interested to hear more about your experiences....