Tips from the Pros: Improve Student Learning with Peer Feedback

Woman looks at laptop with excitement

*This article first appeared in the Teaching Professor on August 1, 2018. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.

As instructors, we often assume that students must learn from us and not others. But feedback on performance is one of the most important factors to learning, and peer feedback can fill in the gaps in instructor feedback or preempt instructor feedback to improve student performance. There are a variety of ways that instructors can harness peer feedback in their courses.

Text assignments

David Wiley, of Brigham Young University, was one of the first to recognize the possibilities that technology and the Internet present for adding peer feedback to education (2009). He started by simply having his students post early versions of their papers on blogs for commentary. Not only did other students provide commentary and suggestions, but instructors and professionals outside of the class also chipped in some helpful advice. The effect was to improve student work prior to submission, giving Wiley fewer issues to deal with. It was as if fellow students and others were aiding Wiley in his teaching. Wiley also believed that the fact the work was being made public, rather than just submitted to the instructor, caused the students to put more effort into making a presentable piece.

I would add that the exercise gave students the opportunity to revise their work in light of feedback, something that is not done enough in education. Normally, students hand in an assignment, get feedback and a grade, and then move on to the next one without any opportunity to apply the feedback they got to the assignment. Then faculty complain that students do not apply their feedback. But this system is akin to a golf coach telling a player they need to hold their hands higher on the club, and then having them move to something else without actually doing it. All coaches have the player apply the feedback at the time it is given to ensure that it is understood and that it sticks.

Similarly, students need to have opportunities to revise their work in light of feedback. That should be built into the course design. I directed two online master’s degree programs that required students to submit a work one week, receive feedback on it, and then submit a revised version of the work. If faculty think it would prevent students from moving through enough material, or that it would take up too much of the faculty member’s time, peers can provide the feedback. Students can be put into rotating groups of two, with each required to post their work on a particular day, then provide feedback on the other person’s work within three or four days, and then revise the work to submit to the instructor another three or four days later. Wiley used a blog to host the students’ work, which was the best option at the time, but today a shared document editing site such as Google Docs would work better because the reviewer can add comments to the exact location where they pertain, rather than at the end in a blog comment section. Plus, the instructor has a history of edits to see what changes were made.

Live discussions

Harvard physics professor Eric Mazur famously combined peer instruction with the flipped classroom when he jettisoned his traditional lectures in favor of a more interactive format that focused on solving problems in the live class. Students would be given a question, such as why does pollen circle in a clockwise direction when put in a magnetic field. They would discuss the reason in small groups and then submit a group vote using an audience response system such as Kahoot, my current favorite for audience response and live quizzing. Not only were students more engaged in the course, but by discussing their position with others, they learned to both listen to others’ reasons and defend their own position, both valuable thinking skills that underly much of college instruction. Take a look at how this works in practice:

A class-wide live discussion like this would be difficult in a fully online course because of the need to find a single time that works in everyone’s schedule. But students could be put into pairs, perhaps self-selected according to common weekly free time, and told to have live meetings to discuss a number of problems. This discussion can be hosted on free video conferencing systems such as Skype, Google Hangouts, or Zoom. Students need to have opportunities to revise their work in light of feedback.

Students should be encouraged to also have a whiteboard or texting system open to write up the results of their deliberations. For instance, I taught a logic course that required students to work out logic problems together outside of class. Students in an online version of the class could start up a collaborative whiteboarding system such as Realtime Board to write down the problems and their work on them together using a touchscreen or tablet. An instructor asking students to work out force vectors on a rotating arm can provide the student with an image that they could draw on to collectively work out the different forces.

Video and web projects

The integration of video recording features into smart phones makes it easy to assign video projects and assessments of student learning. A simple one uses the digital storytelling technique, where students create a video with imagery and narration to explain a concept or tell a story. These projects are easily put together using free voice software such as Audacity for recording audio and WeVideo for creating the video. See the discussion of how to create digital stories in this May 2016 article.

Peer review can be added to these stories by having students load them to a hosting site that allows for commenting. Padlet has been the standard in education for hosting any sort of multimedia content, be it video, audio, or imagery, though Flipgrid is fast becoming the popular alternative for hosting video projects. Students can use either to create an entire website of content to demonstrate understanding or teach a topic related to the course. Then other students can post comments on the work. Since multimedia can be time consuming to create and frustrating to edit, peer review can be limited to one assignment, and students should be given enough time to revise their work after the review.

Peer review coaching

Students are not used to being required to give peer review, and so some coaching will be necessary. Some students might not be sure what they should comment on—the writing, thinking, or style of presentation. Others might not want to hurt their fellow students’ feelings by being critical of their work. Thus, it is best to provide students with some direction ahead of time.

A good practice is to give students a list of topics to comment on. This will help them know what to look for. Another good practice is to help students see the distinction between grades and feedback. Grading is used to judge student work against a standard. Feedback is used to improve performance. Coaches give feedback, and so instructors should liken what students are doing to coaching. The feedback is meant to help students improve their performance, and with that spirit in mind, students will feel more comfortable providing others with helpful commentary.

For other articles like this, check out a Teaching Professor subscription for $19 a month or $149 yearly.

John Orlando, PhD, is an associate director of faculty support and professor at Northcentral University.  He is a sought-after speaker who has published over 70 articles and delivered over 60 presentations, workshops, and keynote addresses on online education and teaching with technology.  Dr. Orlando is also the editor of Online Classroom Newsletter, and has created and taught numerous courses for faculty on teaching with technology.

Wiley, D. (2009). Open Teaching Multiplies the Benefit but Not the Effort. The Chronicle of Higher Education, July 15, 2009.