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Understanding peer assessment and peer feedback

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Explore why we should conduct peer assessment and peer feedback in group assignments

We explore the critical role of teammate peer assessment and formative peer feedback in realizing the benefits of fair, valid and effective group assignments. We introduce several academic policies that support the conduct of group assignments and peer assessment. We compare and contrast alternative strategies to deploying group assignments across a student’s entire academic programme of study. We introduce some factors to consider when exploring options for a technology-enabled digital peer assessment platform. Explain why should we conduct teammate peer assessment and feedback.


Checklist

  • Identify how formative peer feedback can forestall at-risk students and dysfunctional teams
  • Propose academic policies for group assignments and peer assessment
  • Illustrate the reinforcing elements of peer assessment, peer feedback, and teamwork training
  • Compare and contrast strategies for the conduct group assignments and peer assessment across a programme
  • Identify the features of an ideal peer assessment and feedback platform

Why conduct teammate peer assessment and feedback?

In Chapter 1, we introduced the five pillars we believe inform good practice for teaching with group assignments. Let’s extend the five pillars to identify several implications for practice and academic policy.

PILLAR 1 – Assure validity, fairness and motivation
Awarding all teammates the same grade is not valid, fair, nor motivating for students.

The implication of PILLAR 1 is that you require a mechanism to deliver a grade to each teammate that is related to the contribution to delivered outputs, and/or related to the teamwork processes undertaken to achieve that output. In small classes, you may be able observe the relative contributions of teammates. However, that approach is impracticable for larger classes. This implies you limit yourself to assessing a grade for the delivered outputs, whilst delegating measurement of contribution to the students themselves through assessment methods such as peer assessment, self-assessment, or teammate peer assessment.

Self-assessment assumes extraordinary honesty and capability on the part of the student. There is rather too much motivation to self-assess oneself with the most merit-worthy contribution! Consequently, universities often establish policies that forbid the use of self-assessment for directly determining a grade.

Peer assessment of a student by a student from another group suffers similar limitations to those faced by the teacher. The assessor has not ‘lived’ with the group, so is limited to evaluating the quality of the delivered outputs of the group as a whole, not the individual they may be tasked to peer assess. Further, the assessor is unable to assess the contribution of the assessed student to the other group leadership and teamwork processes.

In contrast, teammate peer assessment provides for the possibility that all the teammates in one group can rate each other’s contribution to the delivered outputs, in conjunction with an assessment of the contribution to leadership and teamwork processes.

To obtain the benefits of teammate peer assessment you need a mechanism to

  • Survey the teammate peer assessments awarded BY each teammate in a team, and
  • Collate the responses applicable FOR each teammate
  • Derive a personal grade from the teammate peer assessment, possibly in combination with the teacher’s grading of the delivered outputs of the team

In contrast, teammate peer assessment provides for the possibility that all the teammates in one group can rate each other’s contribution to the delivered outputs, in conjunction with an assessment of the contribution to leadership and teamwork processes.

PILLAR 2 – Minimize freeloading
Freeloading in group assignments is less likely if students’ contributions will determine their grades.

The implication of Pillar 2 is that students must know that

  • Contributions to teamwork will determine grades
  • Teammate peer assessment will be one method the teacher uses to assess contribution and, if necessary, readjust the composition of groups.
  • The grades so determined may be adjusted to such a degree that a student may fail the group assignment.

PILLAR 3 – Train in assessment
Students should receive training in the assessment practices they will use.

The aim of assessment fairness (Pillar 1) demands that students should

  • Learn how to conduct fair, competent and valid teammate peer assessment and feedback
  • Practice using the chosen mechanism to conduct a peer assessment of their teammates
  • Receive timely formative assessment and feedback as a basis for improving the future contribution to their team’s delivered outputs and teamwork processes
  • Receive the practice and formative results as a basis for refining their future experience of the peer assessment platform.

PILLAR 4 – Train in teamwork
Training in teamwork compounds the benefits for team effectiveness and employability.

Our experience is that students new to working in. teams are weak in the capabilities of planning for and chairing meetings, and are weak at inviting and supporting contributions from others. If, per Pillar 3, you conduct assessment training and/or early formative teammate peer assessment in your programme, then you receive data about the specific subset of teamwork capabilities in which your students are weak. Consequently, you can intervene proactively with your students to provide just-in-time skills development on the specific capabilities that will have the most impact on improving their results. Whilst you could deliver the skills development yourself, there are alternatives. Usually your institution’s teaching and learning centre will have a specialist in group assignments and group processes. Alternatively, you could commission the student(s) who are most strong in the capability to make a brief presentation on their method of operation. This latter option is consistent with the action learning approach, where the class learns new skills and knowledge from its own members.

PILLAR 5 – Forestall dysfunctional behaviour
An effective peer assessment platform identifies dysfunctional team behaviour such as outlier team ratings, inflated self-assessments and at-risk students.

The aim of assessment validity and fairness – Pillar 1 and Pillar 2 – demands that the teacher can identify readily when students and teams have failed to conduct the teammate peer assessment practice competently and adequately. Examples of dysfunctional behaviour include

  • Lazy raters who give everyone the same, typically a high rating across all elements of the peer assessment rubric
  • Conspiratorial teams who give everyone the same, typically a high rating across all elements of the peer assessment rubric
  • Outlier raters who rate a team member very differently than the rating given by other members of the team. For example they may rate a friend abnormally high and/or a disliked person abnormally low.

Self-assessments are generally excluded from determining a grade based on contribution. However, it is good practice to require self-assessment as part of the teammate peer assessment process. The comparison of the self-assessment with the peer assessment made by teammates provides insight into the validity, honesty, and realism of a student’s assessment. Outlier over-confident self-assessments are particularly valuable in providing advance warning of students likely to complain about the grade they have been awarded by the peer assessment process! This challenge is addressed in detail in Step 5 – Manage the peer assessment and Step 6 – Courageous conversations, Chapters 7 and 8.

In conclusion, teammate peer assessment provides a credible mechanism for achieving valid and fair grades, whilst raising motivation and minimizing the risk of freeloading. However, these benefits are best realized through students being trained to use the peer assessment platform and given the opportunity to make timely use of feedback results. Finally, the validity of teammate peer assessment requires care to identify and remediate dysfunctional assessment behavior.


Case study – Using peer feedback to forestall an at-risk group

The previous section illustrated how teammate peer assessment provides the minimum foundation for determining fair grades for teammates arising from their work together on a group assignment – Pillar 1 and Pillar 2. Furthermore, Pillars 3 and Pillar 4 suggest the value of formative peer feedback as a basis for helping teams progress from good to great.

Pillar 5 raises the opportunity to use peer assessment as a diagnostic tool to identify dysfunctional teams and at risk individuals. With timely intervention, you can turn such dysfunction from potential failure towards a successful outcome.

Let’s illustrate how timely peer feedback can have a potent, positive impact on team success. The following personal case study reports my first experience using teammate peer feedback with the hope of achieving a mid-course correction to a group that appeared destined for failure!

The group assignment in a final year undergraduate operations management programme required students to undertake an authentic learning assignment. Specifically, the assignment was an industry-based project informed by an action learning teaching process. Each group acted as a consulting team to investigate an issue for a real organization, identify alternative solutions, and recommend a plan for resolving the issue. The delivered outputs of the group assignment included

  • A penultimate draft report accompanied by
  • An oral progress presentation to the industry-based clients delivered near the end of the project
  • An updated, final formal investigative report that resolved loose ends arising from the progress presentation and draft report.

The team result for the delivered outputs comprised a weighted sum of grades awarded by the teacher for the delivered outputs. In addition, the client representatives participated in grading the oral progress presentation and the conduct of the team’s investigation process.

As a component of the action learning process, the groups each week would report on their progress, identifying achievements, future plans, and potential barriers to progress. Each team would question, challenge, and offer advice to the other teams.

Mid-way through the teaching schedule, I became alarmed that one group was not performing to the engaged and productive standard apparent from the other groups. Two members would regularly deliver the progress report and respond to questions. The remaining three teammates might arrive late to class, and contributed little. They appeared quite unmotivated and uninvolved. I was anxious the entire team would fail the project. The failure would be a most undesirable outcome for their final programme of study: their graduation would be delayed a semester. In all my years of teaching, this group was the most dysfunctional and likely to fail I had ever experienced. I needed an intervention to forestall failure!

A peer feedback intervention
The intervention I chose drew from Deacon Carr et al.’s excellent workbook The Team Learning Assistant Workbook (2005). Prior to attending class, I required all students to complete a paper-based version of a teammate peer feedback worksheet similar to that presented in Gallery 3.1, Chapter 3. The worksheet includes a Likert Scale rating in which each teammate rates the contribution across ten teamwork factors. More importantly, I realized subsequently, the worksheet required students to justify why they supplied the rating, and what behaviour would help the student improve their future contribution to the team: qualitative and developmental feedback.

In the next class, I conducted a feedback event as described in Table 8.2. All teams conducted the event simultaneously. As the teams undertook the feedback event, I acted as a ‘roving agent’ amongst all teams, but I kept a sharp eye on my ‘at risk’ group.

What eventuated astonished and delighted me! In my ‘at-risk group’, the principal spokesperson, Daniel, volunteered to be the first recipient for feedback. He began the feedback session with confidence in his achievements and contribution to the group. However, it appeared from his teammates’ feedback that, with one other teammate, these two were doing all the work. The other three teammates expressed that they didn’t know what the plans were or even what the project was about. Therefore, they couldn’t offer assistance. That made them feel embarrassed at the weekly progress review sessions and anxious about how their lack of contribution would appear to the teacher and client when final grades were awarded.

Daniel responded with remarkable maturity rather than defensiveness to the feedback he received. Within the same class session, the two dominant members shared their vision and plans for the investigation. A work-plan was developed collectively, and all teammates left the classroom clearly understanding the actions and responsibilities they were to undertake.

From that moment, the group became a team. At the subsequent weekly reviews, the other teammates stepped forward to develop their confidence presenting progress and responding to questions and challenges.

End of programme reflection
After the final reports were delivered that class held a potluck pre-graduation party. Each student brought food from their country or ethnicity and dressed in national costume. As part of a reflective exercise, students were interviewed about their experience with the course, what was different, and what advice they would give to future students, Movie 2.1. The movie plays from the moment when one teammate reports on their team turnaround following the mid-course peer feedback event. In an earlier section of the movie (starting from PT780S), the same student reflects upon the confidence she developed for her end-of-class client oral presentation:

“Normally, the end-of-class presentation is an event that leaves me feeling anxious the whole semester. In this class, it was an event for which I was well-prepared, rehearsed, and supported by my teammates”.

This was my first attempt at using a mid-course peer feedback intervention. The outcomes, as I stated earlier, were ‘remarkable’. In other words, a positive and rewarding experience in so far as seeing the subsequent growth, maturity and confidence of my students.

Since this episode, I became an ardent advocate for safely-conduced teammate peer feedback processes.

Movie 2.1 End-of-programme reflection on a peer feedback event


Academic policies for peer assessment

We have now established the case for using both peer assessment and peer feedback. Table 2.1 offers ten academic policies that make explicit how the 5 Pillars could be applied in your teaching context. Select and adapt as you require.

Table 2.1 Academic policies for group work and peer assessment

 Academic policy
Policy 1Individual contributions to group work must be identified
Policy 2Peer assessed grades are advisory
Policy 3Fair opportunity to adjust behaviour and outcome
Policy 4Failure is an option
Policy 5Three strikes and you’re out
Policy 6The power of one
Policy 7No last minute team arrangement changes
Policy 8Exclusion of self-assessment
Policy 9Limit on group work contribution
Policy 10Academic dishonesty in peer assessment
© Peer Assess Pro

POLICY 1 – Individual contributions to group work must be identified/strong>
When a group assignment contributes towards a student’s grade, the teacher must apply mechanisms to determine an individual grade proportional to the student’s contribution to the group’s results.

Teammate peer assessment is one acceptable method for determining students’ grades provided the assessment process and results can be determined to be valid, fair and reliable.

POLICY 2 – Peer assessed grades are advisory
Personal results advised to a student from a teammate peer assessment calculation are advisory. The teacher will use peer assessment results as one basis for their final award of a grade for the assignment or programme.

This policy gives you the flexibility or ‘wiggle room’ to adjust a particular student’s grades based on qualitative feedback, and/or rare, extenuating circumstances that were not captured through the peer assessment platform such as egregious peer assessment behaviour. In our many year’s experience, such flexibility is very, very rarely required. However, announcing that ‘grades are advisory’ provides you with comfort whilst you are in the ‘trainer wheels’ stage of using teammate peer assessment.

Frankly, it’s ill-advised to promise to your students that a strict mathematical algorithm will determine their personal results based on their teammates’ peer assessments. Typically, you will calibrate the spread of personal results derived from peer-assessed scores to achieve the ‘Goldilocks Zone’ of reward and penalty for team contribution that your teacher’s judgement deems most appropriate for your class. We’ll illustrate this phenomenon later through the examples in Gallery 3.2.

POLICY 3 – Fair opportunity to adjust behavior and outcome
When teammate peer assessment has the prospect of materially raising or lowering the grade for an academic programme then early formative peer assessment and feedback should be used to provide students with fair opportunity to adjust their behaviour to gain the grade they seek

When teachers introduce formative team assessment opportunities early in the academic programme, persistent counter-productive, dysfunctional or ‘at risk’ students and teams will become aware of the path they have chosen – whether accidentally or deliberately. Given timely feedback early in a group assignment and/or within an academic programme, these teams and students deserve a fair opportunity to recover without risk to the progress of their future academic studies. This policy also implies (a) that students should receive training in the assessment practices they will use, Pillar 3 and (b) that a peer assessment platform should warn the teacher of invalid assessments, and at risk teams and individuals, Pillar 5.

POLICY 4 – Failure is an option
Students must be advised that peer assessment may result in a fail grade for the assignment, the programme, or their transfer out of a team.

We argue that for unsatisfactory team contributors, ‘Failure is an option’. Given timely feedback early in a group assignment (Policy 3), at risk students deserve an opportunity to recover without risk to the progress of their future academic studies. Similarly, with a longitudinal progress record for each student’s teamwork achievement, teachers or academic programme directors will have these at-risk students on their dashboard flagged for attention.

POLICY 5 – Three strikes and you’re out
A team need not carry a freeloader or other counter-productive teammate. A team must first seek to manage a freeloader or counter-productive team member by giving them the opportunity to contribute. If that fails, the remaining team members can apply the ‘three strikes’ process. A strike against a student includes failing to respond to communications, failing to attend a scheduled meeting, delivering unsuitable, unprofessional, or plagiarised material, or violation of other institutional policies.

In general, you should insist to students that you are advised in a timely manner that a team is proposing to commence they processes to exclude a teammate. You may be aware of a special circumstance unknown to the team that requires your diplomatic intervention.

POLICY 6 – The power of one
The teacher may use the results of teammate peer assessment to reallocate a student to another team, including to a team of one member.

For the worst case scenario, you need the option of directing a student to go solo. However, I often find that another team may be remarkably generous in adopting a student who has been excluded from a team.

POLICY 7 – No last minute team membership changes
Adjustments to a teams’s composition will in general not be made by the teacher within ten days of the team’s major submission of its outputs.

This policy introduces a sense of fair play. For example, Policy 5 or Policy 6 must be implemented in a timely manner so a student excluded from a team and allocated elsewhere has a reasonable chance of recovering their situation.

POLICY 8 – Exclusion of self-assessment
Self-assessment must not be used as a basis for determining a student’s grades.

Nevertheless, self-assessment is an extremely useful risk management tool for identifying and diagnosing students who are unrealistic in assessing their contribution to the group’s work.

POLICY 9 – Limit on group work contribution
Group work should, in general, be limited to contributing no more than x per cent of a student’s grade from any one academic programme.

‘In general’ means that you may confidently argue for a higher grade contribution for an academic programme such as capstone where students work in teams throughout the whole course to deliver significant project outputs. In such courses, a highly transparent, valid, and authoritative peer assessment methodology is crucial.

POLICY 10 – Academic dishonesty in peer assessment
Unfair or invalid peer assessments and other attempts to manipulate the peer assessment process are academically dishonest.

This policy clarifies that you will apply the institution’s policies for addressing issues of academic integrity, equity or countering harassment when you observe or suspect a student or team has delivered unacceptable peer assessment ratings, unpleasant peer assessment qualitative remarks, or has conspired to gain a high personal result.

Other institutional policies

Other relevant institutional policies for team work include those for academic integrity, equity and diversity, countering harassment, student complaints resolution, and the student disciplinary process. It’s worth reminding your students these policies are available for their application. You might discuss how these policies apply to examples in the context of group assignments and teamwork peer assessment.


Turbocharging teamwork

In Gallery 2.1 we illustrate how the Five Pillars of group assignments interact through a mutually-reinforcing system that contributes to the benefits of team assessment we asserted in Why group assignments? Chapter 1.

  • Improved sense of fairness about grade outcomes
  • Improved personal and team academic results
  • Improved teamwork capabilities
  • Improved employability through developing career ready capabilities
  • Improved team cohesion, motivation and psychological safety.

Gallery 2.1 The turbocharging impact of peer feedback and assessment


When to introduce group assignments and team assessment

There are three alternative strategies that institutions adopt when introducing group assignments into their academic programmes.

  • End of programme capstone course
  • Fragmented
  • Teamwork across the curriculum

End of programme capstone course

A capstone academic programme is usually undertaken by students in the senior, final year of their programme. Students are typically required to work together on a significant industry-based assignment for a real client, integrating and applying knowledge and generic problem-solving skills developed throughout their earlier studies.

The consequences of a student failing a capstone are more serious than failing earlier academic programmess. The student could be delayed from graduating for six months to a year, with consequently high personal economic costs. In view of the consequences of failure, there is a strong motivation from many stakeholders – the teammates, the teachers, the programme directors – to graduate even the most marginal students from a capstone. However, an institution faces material risks to its credibility when external accreditation agencies or employers discover that the qualifications awarded to some graduates fails to deliver graduates with the capabilities promised. There results a risk that students will not have their qualifications recognized internationally. There is a risk that an academic programme looses its accreditation. No accredited programme – no jobs for teachers!

Fragmented

How can we mitigate the risk of students being unprepared for the teamwork requirements of their capstone programme? One response is to distribute a few group assignments throughout the curriculum but with minimal regard for meeting the expectations of the academic programme, external moderation agencies, or even the related or subsequent courses in which the students will engage. This fragmented approach is also undertaken as a tactic for reducing teachers’ grading requirements with the token justification that ‘group work helps students develop team leadership skills’. Sometimes, the privilege of academic freedom results in different peer assessment rubrics for determining teamwork contribution, and different methods for determining personal results or grades from the peer assessment.

When a fragmented strategy is adopted, academic programme directors have limited ability to assess whether teamwork capabilities of a particular student or cohort of students have improved over the entirety of the academic programme. Academic moderation of grades arising from team assessment is a challenge. Finally, when students receive what they perceive to be unfavorable results, their challenges to the grade are more likely to meet with success. Teachers hate this risk!

Teamwork across the curriculum

From the discussion of Gallery 2.1 you’ll see the value of developing mutually-reinforcing elements of training for teamwork, and training for peer assessment and feedback in addition to conducting peer assessment and feedback. This suggests deploying thoughtfully group assignments from students’ earliest academic programmes across through to a capstone – teamwork across the curriculum.

In their earliest academic programme students are introduced to the purpose, responsibilities, practices, and tools for effective team work. Crucially, students learn the consequences of above average or unsatisfactory team contribution in response to the use of teammate peer assessment and peer feedback as one significant component for determining their academic grades. That is, they receive above average or fail grades. Necessarily, you should conduct formative teammate peer assessment so that students are provided the opportunity to learn specifically what behaviors they must improve to achieve a better peer assessed score from their team, and hence a better final personal result from the summative assessment – Academic Policy 3. No surprises!

These early teamwork lessons are reinforced and extended in key academic programmes through the stages of the curriculum culminating in a team-based capstone for which the students are now robustly prepared. Optionally, other programmes in the curriculum may include teamwork ideally utilizing processes and evaluation rubrics for teammate peer assessment and peer feedback similar to those used in the other key courses in which group assignments are utilised. Using similar teammate peer assessment processes and rubrics reduces the learning burden for students and the team training burden for teachers. Reason: There is a common language students can use amongst themselves to discuss aspects of team behaviors other from group assignment to assignment. For example, a teammate peer assessment rubric will define what it means to include proactively others in the team’s work, or what it means to plan for and chair a meeting. Finally, the teamwork capabilities developed and demonstrated by students are aligned with and measured against curriculum, national, and international standards, such as those of the Washington Accord.


Features of an ideal teammate peer assessment platform

In summary, the ideal strategy for maximizing the benefits for students from group assignments is that the delivery of group assignments should be orchestrated across the curriculum. A coherent, integrated approach to deploying group assignments will establish, reinforce, and extend the development of teamwork capabilities through each student’s years of education, as illustrated in Gallery 2.1.

Additionally, there must be measures of the teamwork capabilities developed in these key courses to give evidence of students’ achievement, progress, and priorities for their subsequent development. Whenever teamwork is graded using peer assessment as one element, students must receive timely, formative feedback that gives them a fair opportunity to understand, reflect, and act proactively upon the personal results they have received. Finally, an ideal institution-wide platform for tracking these elements should provide standardised measures of employability that can be used to compare actual employment outcomes and feedback received from specific employers of the institution’s graduates.

The Five Pillars for group assignments assert the value of conducting effective teammate peer assessment and feedback whenever group assignments are used. However, the contribution of an effective teammate peer assessment and feedback platform is evident especially when used to support teamwork across the curriculum. In support of a cross-curriculum approach, the features of an ideal teammate peer assessment platform are illustrated in Table 2.2.

Table 2.2 Features and benefits of an ideal teammate peer assessment platform from the teacher’s perspective

FeatureBenefit to teacher
Choices for determining peer-assessed personal resultProvides academic freedom to determine the severity of rewards and penalty for superior and inferior team contributions by individual students.
Time and cost-effective survey deployment and managementGroup assignments can be assigned to students with academic integrity rather than as simple tactic to save a teacher’s marking time. Enables good-practice delivery of formative and summative teammate peer assessments throughout a group assignment. Formative peer assessment mitigates the risk of later student complaints against unfair assessment by peers or other team dysfunctions.
Convenient distribution of personalized feedback reportsEnables timely feedback of formative results to students so they have a fair chance to reflect upon, and improve their teamwork contribution over the remainder of the course.
Diagnostic data identifying at risk teams and individualsEnables proactive behaviour by the teacher to resolve dysfunctional behaviour such as overgenerous or unfairly low peer assessments, or collusive behaviour by sub-sets of teammates.
Track-and-trace of results and notificationsStudent complaints can be resolved at any time with authoritative data about requests for survey responses and feedback results delivered. There is no “I did not understand”!
Authoritative and standardized peer assessment survey rubricsReduces time for teachers to learn what’s required to deploy the survey, and interpret its results. Reduces time to explain to students how to complete the survey and interpret the feedback results.
Standardized indexes of teamwork contributionEnables comparisons to be made between teams, classes, and a student’s performance over time. Adds credibility to the institution’s claims for delivering students qualified with career-ready teamwork capabilities.
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From the students’ perspective, the benefits of timely and effective teammate peer assessment and feedback are those presented in Table 2.3.


Next chapter

The next chapter presents Step 1 – Prepare the group assignment as an authentic learning experience. Before we introduce our class to their group assignment, we must create an engaging assignment that meets academic learning outcomes and develops teamwork capabilities valued by employers or the profession into which the student will forge their career.

Table 2.3 How the benefits of team assessment are delivered for students

FeatureBenefit to student
Fairness about grade outcomesStudents learn through timely, personalized reports why they received the grade awarded and how they compare with teammates and the class as a whole.
Improved personal and team academic resultsStudents receive personalized developmental feedback that provides a guide towards adjusting their teamwork behaviour towards achieving the grade they seek.
Improved teamwork capabilitiesStudents are directed to self-help resources that help them interpret and act proactively in response to the personalized feedback and recommendations for development they have received.
Improved employabilityStudents receive personal reports presenting improvements over time, and present qualitative evidence in support of claims the student makes during a recruitment application.
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