Dr Charlotte Newey and Dr Steph Rennick
We undertook a pilot study into the use and usefulness of peer feedback, involving undergraduates and postgraduates from Philosophy at Cardiff University – where peer feedback was not widely used – and for comparison, undergraduates from Law (where peer feedback was well-established).
The study identified three main concerns students have with peer feedback: the expertise of their peers, their motivation and investment, and their ability to interpret and apply grading criteria. Here we outline some simple recommendations to help to mitigate these concerns while allowing educators and students to repeat the many benefits of incorporating peer feedback.
Our study’s overarching aims were three-fold (https://www.cardiff.ac.uk/learning-hub/view/improving-peer-review-a-pilot-study):
- To trial different opportunities for, and kinds of, peer feedback.
- To gather qualitative and quantitative data on the perceived usefulness of peer feedback, before, during, and after interventions.
- To improve students’ ability to identify and utilise different kinds of feedback (including, but not limited to, peer feedback).
Ultimately, we wished to improve the perception of peer feedback among students by helping them to understand its usefulness, identify the conditions under which it is most valuable, and gain insight into the barriers that can hinder its success. We hypothesised that a better understanding of student perceptions regarding feedback would help us to improve our teaching and feedback practices.
The research was undertaken by Dr Charlotte Newey and Dr Steph Rennick when we were Philosophy lecturers at Cardiff University. We noted an apparent mismatch between workload constraints and the quality and volume of feedback the university aimed to provide. We trialled interventions in two undergraduate and one postgraduate Philosophy module and held focus groups with Philosophy students and students from Law (where peer feedback was already an established practice). Given the time pressures on academics throughout the UK, this research remains highly relevant and is applicable across disciplines.
The research also bears on student experience. Students may give lower scores on module evaluations and NSS in relationship to the timeliness or usefulness of feedback if they do not recognise the different forms that feedback can take and have in mind only written comments made by academics on summative work. There is therefore additional benefit to improving students’ understanding and recognition of peer feedback.
At the start of the study, we held focus groups to canvas opinions among undergraduates regarding peer feedback. We then trialled six interventions across three modules over the course of a semester (two undergraduate and one postgraduate). These included critically commenting on their peers’ individual and group work over different tasks, providing feedback both verbally and in writing. Throughout this period, we measured the difference in perceived usefulness between the different interventions, including instances identified explicitly as constituting peer feedback versus those described merely in terms of the activity (e.g., ‘a group exercise’). We used in-class surveys and Mentimeter polls. Finally, we held a third focus group at the end of the semester to capture whether attitudes had changed as a result of the interventions. In the first half of semester, we described activities in terms of their specific learning outcomes without identifying them explicitly as peer feedback (e.g., this is a group activity in which you’ll practise reading and interpreting an ancient text); in the second half, we indicated how and why the interventions were forms of peer feedback. We wanted to discover whether the phrase ‘peer feedback’ put students off, and whether they were correctly identifying the various opportunities when they were receiving feedback, rather than assuming feedback was limited to comments from a staff member on written work.
We found that reception of peer feedback varied depending on a number of factors. Most strikingly, students seemed to appreciate peer feedback most when it didn’t apply to a particular assessment, but rather in the context of checking their understanding and/or skills development. While they were reluctant to have their peers ‘mark’ their work, they reported significant benefits from defending their ideas, critiquing the structure of others’ arguments, and comparing their understanding. Perhaps because ‘assessment’ and ‘feedback’ are so often discussed together, students didn’t always recognise this non-assessment-specific feedback as ‘feedback’.
Students highlighted three main concerns with peer feedback:
- What do their peers know? (The expertise of those giving feedback)
- Do their peers care? (The attitude, investment, and motivation of those giving feedback)
- Do their peers understand the grading criteria, and would they apply it accurately and reliably?
The focus groups revealed differences in attitudes between disciplines that affected reception of peer feedback: Philosophy students tended to view their peers more as collaborators while Law students viewed them as competitors.
Encouragingly, each of the central concerns raised by students can be overcome. Based on the study and our subsequent practice, we make the following recommendations for improving the effectiveness and reception of peer feedback:
- Ensure that exercises involving peer feedback are overseen by staff. This helps to avoid the problem of ‘student expertise’.
- Provide opportunities for students to practise giving feedback, increasing their confidence in themselves and each other.
- Incentivise giving helpful feedback. For example, by making peer feedback a component of summative assessment. This helps to overcome the problem of student investment.
- Foster an environment where students see each other as collaborators, rather than competitors, which might be done differently in different departments.
- Develop students’ literacy in interpreting grading criteria by having them apply them, rather than merely distributing copies of the criteria.
- Do not limit the discussions of feedback to discussions of assessments: highlight the diversity of opportunities for, and benefits of, feedback. An example of this from within Humanities, which is likely to have wider application, occurs in group discussions. A seminar leader might delay their own response to a students’ question or opinion, and instead invite others to provide answers or suggestions.
This study provided helpful insights into the attitudes of students towards peer feedback and how its benefits could be maximised and best communicated. Part of the project’s success came from the sustained nature of the interventions, the ongoing evaluations, and comparisons between modules and with another department. However, this was a small pilot study so there were limitations on what could be achieved. The postgraduate class we trialled interventions in was small, and so the bulk of our analysis focussed on our more robust undergraduate data – exploring postgraduates’ experience of peer feedback would be a fruitful avenue for future research. We had chosen Law as our comparison discipline as peer feedback was more established there, but unfortunately the attendees of the Law focus group were less familiar with this practice than we had hoped. In future research, additional cross-discipline comparisons would be useful.
We have both continued to incorporate peer feedback into our practice and encourage our colleagues to do the same.