Pear-to-pear (it was better than the images I got for peer-to-peer).

As part of my Visiting Professorship at Imperial College I have been asked to think about how peer-to-peer assessment works in group works. Here are my thoughts.

One of the common features of the group-work-based learning experiences that I have been involved with is the need for the participants to be able to give each other feedback. Often in an undergraduate setting there is an emphasis on giving anonymous feedback. I have seen many colleagues cook up clever ways of gathering this anonymous feedback – I’ve conceived a few such systems myself – and processing this feedback in order to find out what is going on in student groups and to enable the teacher to be the arbiter of fairness. Managing such systems of peer-to-peer feedback can quickly become burdensome, and I am never really sure whether you really know what is going in the group or if the students are rigging the system.

As I become more and more involved in problem-based learning, I realise that this approach – anonymity and delegation of confrontation to the teacher – misses the point. If students feel that their peers aren’t pulling their weight in a teaching scenario, then they should be trained in how to confront these issues in themselves. And taking a more positive spin, students should also learn how to give positive feedback too.

I think it should be possible to give students the tools to handle these sorts of interactions themselves, and then for the teaching staff to coach students through the process where difficult situations arise. These are tools that my collaborator Nick Zienau uses in his ‘Leading and Influencing‘ course. The following is how I envisage this could work:

How it would work

The context is an extended student group design session in which a group of six to ten students spend a number of weeks collaborating to deliver a shared group output.

Skills development day: trust, confrontation and non-judgemental feedback.

I envisage a day-long training day for student groups. This would involve a series of group work exercises punctuated with whole-class briefing and feedback sessions.

Contracting – this is the process by which students agree with each other what they can each contribute to the team, what they want from the others, and how through their own actions they might jeopardise the group’s success. Students develop contracts for themselves, present them to one-another, and then agree a contract for the group.

The creation of contracts is a trust-building activity, and it creates a visible set of expectations by which the students can hold each-other to account.

Confrontation – in this session we provide a quick formula for confronting challenges. It involves naming a behaviour that they have seen and saying how it contravenes their individual or group contract. The reference to the contracts makes the terms of engagement very clear. Practising a formula for engagement makes the process something that people are familiar with.

Non-judgemental feedback – we walk students through process where they give each non-judgemental feedback, much of which comes down to language. We show students how to stick to facts, like ‘I have seen you do this’ or ‘when you do that it makes me feel like this’, rather than ‘what you have done is bad, or wrong’.

At the end of the training day, students have contracts for themselves and the group, a language for direct, open and kind confrontation and a mechanism for giving non-judgemental feedback.

Self-regulation during group work

After the initial training day students get on with their group work as normal. They are asked to have a quick daily group feedback session, where they appreciate each other’s efforts and identify any emerging issues. They are also expected to have a weekly structured feedback session, where they tell each other where they are contributing most to the group, and how they could contribute more.

Through the group work, it is expected that the contracts remain in view. They are intended to be a visual reminder to individuals of what they should be doing themselves, and also a way for people to understand other people’s behaviour.

Instructor Intervention

The course instructor makes themselves available say once a week to deal with any issues that students feel they can’t deal with in their own groups. The consultation happens with the whole group and the instructor will ask to see evidence that the teams have been meeting to review their contracts regularly and have been giving each other constructive feedback along the way.

Overall, I believe this approach would empower the students, give them useful life skills and improve the quality of their learning.

My thanks to Nick Zienau and Søren Willert who have significantly advanced my thinking on this topic.

Pear‘ by Augustus Binu, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.