Peer assessment at work

Guest post by Lucy Adam

Our first guest post is by Lucy Adam who teaches textile design and development at RMIT in Melbourne, Australia.

Anna Sassi at the RMIT Fashion and Textiles graduate show, Moonee Valley 2010

One skill we would probably all agree is important for our students to develop while they’re with us is the ability to successfully work with others. It’s a highly regarded skill in the professional world. The reason for this is that seldom in a work place all planning and decision making is left to one person. It’s more realistic that tasks are undertaken by a group of people who provide a framework which increases the ability of the group to achieve its’ goals.

In this post I would like to address some of the benefits of group work and peer assessment and draw on my experience as a teacher on how to equip a group of learners with the ability and confidence to assess their peers.

Firstly, why do we carry out assessment? One answer may be, to provide feedback on the learners’ performance. So my next question then is: is the teacher always the best person to carry out assessment? I believe the answer is no, especially in the case of group work. In saying this however, the teacher is heading into dangerous territory if the group is not invited to participate in identifying and agreeing on the assessment criteria and methodology.

My example of teamwork and peer assessment takes place in a TAFE unit of competency (for those of you not in Australia, as part of a vocational education and training program) I team teach with Julia Raath titled Exhibit Textile Designs or Products. Students are required to work in groups to undertake fundraising, design and organise the production of a catalogue, and prepare and plan for the graduate exhibition and opening night.

The various tasks to be carried out by the groups are identified and students are asked to name what sort of skills may be required to do these specific jobs – for example to design the catalogue it’s always identified that strong computer aided design skills are needed. Then students are asked to write down what they think their strengths are in relation to the tasks at hand. This is done to help the class realise that everyone has skills, knowledge and experience that will be valuable to the overall success of the project and the importance of diversity.

Then we discuss teamwork, what is it? Why do we do it? What are some of the components of working successfully in a team? At this point it’s highlighted that teamwork is about the bigger picture; even though you may have a specific function, you are united with the whole group to accomplish your goals. Discussion points centre around:

• Clear expectations – goals, timelines and deadlines
• Context – does everyone understand why they are participating
• Commitment and contribution – are all team members committed to accomplishing the mission? Is everyone willing to contribute equally?
• Competence – having the skills and knowledge to complete tasks
• Collaboration – how people work together
• Communication – what is the established method for communication, dispute resolution and the importance of showing respect through honest and clear communication.

This discussion is the catalyst for enabling students to set the criteria by which they will assess each other. The whiteboard soon becomes full of all the attributes the group feels are important to carry out the teamwork. Typically they list: listening, asking questions, honesty, encouragement, diplomacy, constructive criticism, goal setting, task management, meeting deadlines, problem solving, reliability, respectful, calm, compromise, commitment……. Inevitably another long discussion follows about definitions and categories. For example someone usually points out that if you are honest and listen then you are respectful, so the attribute of respect covers many criteria and that if you meet deadlines and contribute then you are committed…. It’s a long class!

The narrowed down criteria is then turned into a rubric and given to students for approval. Once finalised, the rubric is given to all students and levels of performance are clearly described. Students have been engaged and the terms of assessment are transparent and been agreed upon by all. This task in itself instills a sense of accountability, commitment and ownership. See the rubric here.

Camilla Stirling at the opening of Fuse at The Counihan Gallery, Brunswick 2010

The following are what we’ve found (and others have too) to be some of the benefits of peer assessment and group work through experience with students in my teaching:

• Allows students to take greater responsibility for their learning
• Peer assessment is possibly the only way of obtaining accurate information about the individual contributions made within a group
• Facilitates the development of communication, team work, problem solving and self management
• Encourages students to develop a greater understanding of standards of work (Bostock, 2000)
• It involves students actively using their skills and knowledge of subject matter (Bostock, 2000)
• “Studies consistently report positive responses to peer marking from students (Bostock 2000; Orsmond et al. 2000; Black et al. 2003) who claim it has made them think more, become more critical, learn more and gain more confidence.” (Bloxam & Boyd, 2007, p 23)

At the end of the year we raised enough money for two extraordinarily successful graduate shows and a beautiful colour catalogue. It was wonderful to see the students so proud of their achievements on the opening nights!

Have you had any experiences of using peer learning and/or peer assessment in your teaching that has worked well?

References:

Bloxam, S. & Boyd, P. (2007). Developing effective assessment in higher education: a practical guide. Berkshire: Open Link Press.

Bostock, S. (2000). Student Peer Assessment. The Higher Education Academy. Retrieved from http://www.palatine.ac.uk/files/994.pdf

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