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Why Peer Assessment?

There are both benefits and drawbacks to using group assignments in teaching. Some students loathe group assignments because they must deal with dysfunctional team behaviours such as freeloaders, dominators and blockers. From a teacher’s viewpoint, students benefit from exposure to different perspectives, they can perform at higher intellectual levels and they are given the opportunity to develop teamwork capabilities valued in their future employment.

Teammate peer assessment is one method teachers use to accentuate the positive benefits of group assignments and minimise some of the drawbacks.

In this lesson, I’ll introduce five pillars that underpin effective group assignments. These pillars are informed by several academic research findings. I’ll focus especially on the role of peer assessment.

Here are the first two pillars.

Pillar 1, Awarding all teammates the same grade is not valid, fair, nor motivating for students.

Pillar 2, Freeloading in group assignments is less likely if students’ contributions will determine their grades.

Teammate peer assessment is one practical mechanism a teacher can use to give effect to these two pillars. But further benefits arise from peer assessment which I’ll introduce later.

But first, what is teammate peer assessment? It’s a process where teammates respond to a survey where they rate each other’s contribution to their team’s outputs and teamwork processes while they pursue together a group assignment.

In summative teammate peer assessment, we calculate a personal result for teamwork contribution derived from a peer assessed score combined with a teacher-determined team result. The result is a much fairer grade rather than giving every teammate the same grade.

The peer assessment is conducted using a survey rubric. The survey must provide for quantitative ratings of each teammate’s relative contribution, typically across several factors. Ideally, the survey also solicits qualitative evidence to support the ratings awarded by the survey respondent.

The peer-assessed score for each teammate is calculated from an average of the quantitative ratings awarded through the peer assessment survey by each teammate. The resulting peer-assessed score rates their relative contribution to the team’s result as perceived by their teammates.

A team result is the grade awarded by the teacher to each team’s delivered outputs. Those outputs are typically a report, a presentation, a dramatic production, perhaps an engineering prototype.

Now, the team result is combined mathematically with the peer-assessed score for each teammate. Each student receives a personal result that is distributed higher or lower than the teacher-awarded team result. In the example of Kamryn in team Black Robins, we see her Personal Result is 44, even though her team’s result awarded by the teacher was 70. Her relatively low peer-assessed score awarded by her teammates resulted in her low Personal Result.

The distribution effect within each team depends on the mathematical method and weighting scales chosen by the teacher. According to the research pillars I mentioned earlier, this contribution-based grade improves student’s motivation and reduces the risk of freeloading.

So that’s how we use peer assessment to determine a fair grade from each students’ contribution to the group assignment.

There are further reasons to use peer assessment. The most important reason is to provide each student with a fair opportunity to adjust their behaviour and outcome. This is one of ten academic policies we advocate for the conduct of group assignments and peer assessment.

With timely, formative peer feedback, conducted early in the group work, students gain the opportunity to adjust their behaviour to deliver better contributions and achieve better academic results for both their team and themself. Furthermore, formative peer assessment helps students feel more competent, reduces their doubt about the course, and gives them a sense that the course has a more student-centred learning environment (Mentzer et al., 2017).

So that’s how peer assessment helps students learn to improve their academic results through adjusting their teamwork behaviour.

Now let’s introduce the remaining three research pillars.

Pillar 3, Effective peer assessment requires the identification of dysfunctional team behaviour at-risk students, and class teamwork strengths and weaknesses.

Pillar 4, Students should receive training in the assessment practices they will use to determine their teammates’ contributions.

Pillar 5, Training in teamwork compounds the benefits for raising team effectiveness, personal results and employability.

I defer the issue of training in peer assessment and teamwork to later lessons. Why? Because one key benefit from using a comprehensive peer assessment platform is that we can identify the specific teamwork training requirements our students need. That training applies to both their teamwork and their peer assessment practice.

Further training requirements emerge from applying the third pillar. Namely, we analyse the results of our peer assessment to evaluate its validity and fairness for our specific class of students. Here are typical symptoms that our peer assessment may NOT be fair nor valid.

  • First, Lazy raters or Conspiratorial teams who give everyone the same, typically a high rating across all elements of the peer assessment rubric.
  • Second, The Lake Wobegon Effect, where the class as a whole tends to rate itself mostly above average.
  • Third, Inflated self-assessments, known also as excessive self-enhancement bias, where a student rates themself much higher than the peer assessment provided by their teammates.
  • Fourth, Outlier raters that rate a team member very differently than the rating given by other members of the team.
  • Fifth, Inconsistent teams where there is poor agreement about the ratings given to high, average, and low team contributors.

It’s especially important to pay attention to at-risk students. These students are rated significantly below the median rating in their team, and, therefore, might fail the assignment. These may be students who are freeloaders, they may have been scapegoated unfairly, or perhaps they feel alienated and have withdrawn from contributing to their team.

The peer assessment platform should identify these dysfunctional behaviours and help fix the problems.

But how does a teacher respond to these dysfunctional indicators?

The immediate response is to investigate the qualitative feedback collected in the peer assessment survey and probe for clues about team dynamics. Next, the teacher requests outlier respondents to resubmit their survey. We may need to counsel directly the students identified as at-risk or those with inflated self-assessments. Medium-term, the teacher undertakes to train the students to complete a more honest and fair response next time.

So that’s how we use peer assessment to identify and address dysfunctional teams and at-risk students.

Finally, a standardized survey rubric for peer assessment enables measure students’ progression towards developing the future-ready leadership and teamwork capabilities required by professional institutions, accreditation authorities, and employers. A teamwork across the curriculum strategy, leading to a capstone academic group assignment, facilitates this developmental progression.  And that’s a matter for another lesson.

Summary

In summary, peer assessment gives practical effect to the five research pillars that support fair, valid and effective group assignments. Summative peer assessment raises motivation and fairness, and minimises the risk of freeloading behaviour.

Through formative peer assessments, students learn how they must adjust their behaviour to contribute more effectively to their team’s outputs and teamwork processes, thereby achieving higher personal and team results. In addition, formative peer assessment reduces students’ doubt about the assignment and raises their perception of a student-centred learning environment.

Through investigating the results of a peer assessment result, the teacher can address dysfunctional teams, at-risk students, and train the class to overcome relatively weak teamwork capabilities and poor peer assessment practice.

Finally, in conjunction with a ‘teamwork across the curriculum’ strategy (TAC), a standardised peer assessment rubric enables the teacher to demonstrate and validate students’ progression towards developing the future-ready teamwork capabilities required by professions and employers.

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