Back in the days when Assessment for Learning was the ‘in thing’ and a real buzzword in education circles, self-assessment and peer assessment were all the rage.

The benefits of both are fairly obvious: self-assessment forces the student to take more responsibility for – and have a greater ownership of – their own work. Peer assessment, meanwhile, is a great way for students to receive timely feedback, it reduces the marking burden on the teacher (in theory); and when peer assessment is set up really effectively, it encourages peer-to-peer dialogue about their work. Having the ‘student as teacher’ or ‘student as coach’ is one of the best approaches there is to truly cement learning.

All good, or so it would seem.

The problem with peer assessment

The problem was, and still is, that peer assessment can be an absolute minefield if it is not set up carefully. Not only that, students can’t just ‘do it’ – they need to be trained to be effective at peer assessment.

In many ways, peer assessment fell foul to what often happens in education – a tickbox mentality. For a time, an approach or strategy is seen as ‘the done thing’. School Senior Leadership Teams shout about its importance from the rooftops. Then it becomes an expectation that every (or nearly every) lesson has ‘the peer assessment bit’.

And the result is that whatever the strategy, tool or task is, it is done because of what it is, not what it is actually does in terms of aiding learning or helping students to progress.

Peer assessment can be problematic. It can be a complete waste of time, so teachers would be forgiven for asking:

Is it all that?

Peer assessment can be very powerful

In answer to the question: It can be. Peer assessment can be an extremely powerful and useful tool. But the devil really is in the detail. Planning of peer assessment needs to be meticulous and, as previously mentioned, students need to be trained at it. There are also a few tips to bear in mind.

Change mindsets and create the right culture

Students are under a lot of pressure to achieve and reach academic targets. In truth, they often struggle to look beyond the mark or grade that has been given for a piece of work. Teachers need to change their mindset so that students focus on the feedback they have been given and the targets they have been set. They need to have a growth mindset and appreciate that learning is a journey where you build on your strengths and work on your weaknesses.

Many students fear failure too. Creating a culture where mistakes, and failure, are seen as okay and just a part of learning is very important if peer assessment is to be effective.

Train students and develop the necessary skills

Students need to be trained about what to look for in a piece of work. Whether it’s the actual criteria of exam grade descriptors, key features, or simply the appropriate vocabulary – they need to be confident using the relevant material. Crucially, they also need to be able to articulate this understanding. Equally important, students need to develop the skill of giving effective feedback, as negative feedback can be demoralising to the person who receives it.

Timing is everything

With peer assessment timing is everything. Feedback needs to be timely because if you leave it too long, students struggle to remember the task they were doing (and why they were doing it). It’s easy for impetus and momentum to be lost.

At its very best peer assessment becomes firmly embedded into the culture of a classroom. It is not an ‘add on’ but something that is integrated into lessons and in-between tasks. It can become an activity that is done naturally by the students. They simply get on and do it!

Finally, students need to be given adequate time to reflect and respond to the feedback they have been given – and time to act on it and implement improvements.

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