A college student opens the double doors and walks into a large conference room full of 65 long tables, set end-to-end and stacked six rows deep. Taking it all in, he asks his classmate, “How do we know where to put our projects?” before realizing large instructions with randomly assigned locations are projected up on the screen for all to see. He carefully places his project down onto spot #45, along with his required “Executive Summary,” a two-page document that provides his self-assessment and rationale about why he chose his project, what class content it caused him to research and learn more deeply, and how his project directly helped fulfill the four overall stated course outcomes.
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Peer assessment in groups has been shown to effectively address a number of group process issues, but only if the peer assessment has a formative component. Many studies have shown that if peer assessment is used at the end of a group project, group members will punish their dysfunctional members—those who didn’t do work, didn’t turn work in on time, didn’t come to meetings, and didn’t do quality work—but they won’t confront those group members when they commit those dysfunctional behaviors. After-the-fact peer assessment gives the teacher input on who did and didn’t contribute in the group, but it doesn’t change what happened in that group or help students learn how to confront group member problems when they emerge.
Teachers who use group work frequently incorporate some sort of peer assessment activity as a means of encouraging productive interactions within the group. If part of the grade for the group work depends on an assessment by fellow group members, students tend to take their contributions to the group more seriously. Often teachers use some sort of point distribution system where a given number of points must be divided among members, and they cannot be distributed equally. The problem with these systems is that the feedback they provide lacks specificity. Students don’t know what they are doing that accounts for the score they’ve received, and this makes improvement less likely.
Evidence that students can learn from each other continues to grow. The quality of some of the research documenting that fact is impressive. Here are highlights from a study in which peers were used to facilitate discussion groups in a large general chemistry course.
“We cannot assume … that students will learn how to become better group members simply by participating in group activities.” Diane Baker (reference below) makes this observation in a first-rate article on peer assessment in small groups. Here’s a sampling of the ideas, information, and resources included in her article.
Many faculty incorporate a peer-assessment component in team projects. Because faculty aren’t present when the groups interact and therefore don’t know who’s doing what in the group, they let students provide feedback on the contributions of their group-mates. In addition to giving the teacher accurate information on which to base individual grades, the process gives students…