The virtues (and pitfalls) of student-to-student feedback – a reflection

In corridor discussions and conversations at symposia, I have often engaged in lively debates around the appropriateness of the use of student peer review i.e. student-to-student feedback specifically around in-class presentation assessments.

Challenge

If you work within a qualitative unit, you are acutely aware of the challenges these workshops/tutorials pose. Groups have been working on their presentations and are nervous/excited to deliver their recommendations or proposal to solve/fine tune/remedy the challenge that was placed before them in the assessment brief. While the energy of the group presenting is often palpable, the ‘audience’ i.e. non-presenting students are very often disengaged….and that’s the ones who have turned up!

I have often asked myself “How can I build an environment where ‘presentation week’ is valuable to all, not just the presenters?”

Investigation

I wanted to ensure the audience was receiving more than just the content being delivered to them.  So I decided to consider student-to-student feedback on presentations.  While the presenting groups were developing their presentation skills for future use in their post-university careers, the audience would be developing their ability to give feedback effectively.

Advocates such as Pound et al. (2022) highlight that such exercises not only develop the skills required to give feedback but once students have understood the challenges of giving feedback they are more open to receiving it; a skill that will be valuable far beyond the completion of the semester’s unit.  I have also been fascinated with Felten and Lamberts’ (2020) work that highlights the importance of supporting student-to-student connections and interaction to help develop their ‘webs of significance’ to optimise success within the tertiary education arena.

I see that within the university context, there are very few opportunities for our students to develop their own evaluative judgment. As Boud et al (2018) discuss, having the skill to not only assess the quality of peers’ work but also their own is a key skill for today’s graduates.  How am I allowing this skill to evolve if it is only myself, as the educator, delivering feedback?

In my corridor chats, I have often encountered critics of student peer review, who pragmatically highlight the advantages are actually difficult to attain ideals and the practicalities and even potentially ethical dilemmas of encouraging students to give direct feedback to other students can be fraught with danger. Many were concerned students simply don’t have the expertise to give useful feedback and could just confuse the situation.

So, for years I sat on the fence, wanting to give it a go but paralysed to try.

Decision

This changed in Semester 1 2020 after a chance conversation with a group of my students at the end of the semester. In this conversation, I asked them many questions including “How would you have liked to improve the unit?” Their instant response really surprised me. “We were really disappointed that we didn’t get to hear what our class thought of our presentation.  We wanted to hear their thoughts.”

Student peer review in the literature

So, I turned to the literature and found Wanner and Palmer (2018) had highlighted the growing use of student peer review as a useful assessment element, even before the ‘assessment shake-up’ universities experienced due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The authors discussed that there were many advantages delivered by adopting this approach such as:

  • students taking greater accountability for their learning
  • deeper understanding of the subject material
  • development of student capabilities

However, they also noted few higher education institutions had adopted this practice as a standard assessment element. Could this be because it seems so hard to implement?

Adachi et al. (2018) present an ‘Augmented peer assessment framework’, after their investigations into previously available frameworks such as Topping’s (1998) ‘Inventory of peer assessment diversity’ and Gielen, Dochy and Onghena’s (2011) literature review of material between 1997-2006, and identified 19 different design elements. However, for what I wanted to achieve, I felt that all of these were too cumbersome.  Many of these frameworks meant students would engage in up to an hour of peer review and I wanted something more agile and simple.

No more fence-sitting for me.  I decided to be brave and embrace student-to-student feedback. 

Implementation

This is what I decided to do and how I now manage this in units of usually 200+ students. 

Simply scaffolded feedback

To mitigate the often-common problem of hypercriticism and information overwhelm that happens when the inexperienced give feedback I asked the audience to answer two simple questions:

  • One thing the presenting group did well?
  • One thing the presenting group could improve?
Support evaluative judgment in the presenting group

I have often had a group present and on completion, they stand wide-eyed waiting to hear what the ‘judges’ have to say as if they were contestants on ‘the Voice’. This further reinforces that others are best to evaluate their performance. To mitigate this reinforcement and develop their own evaluative judgment, I ask the presenting group the two questions before anyone else has spoken.

Support with scalable EdTech to capture the feedback in a written format.

This has two ramifications. The first is that each audience member solidifies their feedback and the presenting group can take this feedback away for further consideration. I tend to use SRES (Student Relationship Engagement System) for this task as I can deliver personalised and anonymised feedback to the presenting group. However, I have also found Padlet and even the Zoom chat useful to collect audience feedback around the two-question insights too.

Ensure there are mechanisms to support respectful feedback

When using SRES I have a ‘Report disrespectful feedback’ button which can be traced back to the offender. In Padlet and Zoom chat, students must post through their University of Sydney accounts to ensure their name and student ID are traceable. This convention is established right before the commencement of the semester.

Model ‘safe’ feedback from the beginning of semester

“Practice what you preach”.  From week one I regularly have a simple Google form asking my students for feedback: ‘Tell me one thing I’m doing well and one thing to improve’ and openly discuss this with my students in the class.  Of course, I understand the power dynamic, however, it never takes long for them to embrace the approach when I am also following the same rules.

Results

For me this has been an interesting venture as I have been able to learn a lot about my own teaching practice. When looking at the volume of feedback the audience produces it appears that the vast majority of students are engaging in the process. Attendance is also higher. I have noticed that the presenting groups are very open to critiquing themselves and therefore open the door to a development discussion instead of a ‘judgment’.  Anecdotal feedback on this approach from students is also really positive. They felt they had my feedback, which was very detailed, but also feedback from their peers that helped to further guide them.

The above is simply my current practice. I would love to hear your thoughts on my approach and also understand your experiences with such ventures. Comment on this post to continue the conversation.

About the author

With a convoluted career trajectory, Robyn has a Master's degree in Education, a Graduate Diploma in Business, and a Bachelor of Science majoring in Nutrition. Her strength as a trans-disciplinary educator has been recognized with multiple teaching awards and educator roles both within and outside of the USYD Business School. Robyn's recent research focus is on the area of 'How academics learn to teach'. Beyond the tertiary sector, she has worked as an International Launch Manager and Marketing Capabilities Manager for multi-national pharmaceutical organizations, a pharmaceutical sales representative, a founder of local not-for-profit organizations, and has also done her fair share as a retail assistant and waitress. When she was at school, she dreamed of being world-famous and studied music, dance, and theatre. She feels these skills allows her a palette of diverse approaches to problem-solving that are embedded into her daily leadership approach.

Published by Robyn Martin

With a convoluted career trajectory, Robyn has a Master's degree in Education, a Graduate Diploma in Business, and a Bachelor of Science majoring in Nutrition. Her strength as a trans-disciplinary educator has been recognized with multiple teaching awards and educator roles both within and outside of the USYD Business School. Robyn's recent research focus is on the area of 'How academics learn to teach'. Beyond the tertiary sector, she has worked as an International Launch Manager and Marketing Capabilities Manager for multi-national pharmaceutical organizations, a pharmaceutical sales representative, a founder of local not-for-profit organizations, and has also done her fair share as a retail assistant and waitress. When she was at school, she dreamed of being world-famous and studied music, dance, and theatre. She feels these skills allows her a palette of diverse approaches to problem-solving that are embedded into her daily leadership approach.

One thought on “The virtues (and pitfalls) of student-to-student feedback – a reflection

  1. Alison Casey – A lifelong learner and educator, Alison is an education developer lecturer with the Business Co-Design hub at the University of Sydney's School of Business. She has a PhD in Theoretical Chemistry, is a qualified Science and Maths high school teacher, was the sock knitting tutor at Morris and Sons for some years, always ends up being the Treasurer on whatever committee she's on, and her favourite circus apparatus is static trapeze.
    Alison Casey says:

    It’s such an important trait to develop in students, and very difficult to do consistently at scale. Modelling respectful behaviour and including yourself in the feedback mix sounds like a very important early step. I did an action research project with a tutor group of initial teacher education students on precisely this, and spent an hour with them at the beginning of semester thrashing out what peer evaluation would like for them for their presentation series. We started from scratch, and what was very clear was that trust was at the heart of it. They were adamant that they did not want written feedback! What we ended up doing once they’d finished was a ten minute workshopping of their presentation while the next group set up (their presentations were micro classes, so they were potentially going to use them in a classroom), which involved them self-assessing as well. It had the unexpected consequence of bonding the group together – group activities with this class ended up being very rich and collegial (I was tutoring seven classes, so had a good comparison set). Not an approach that would scale well, unfortunately, or translate neatly online. SRES sounds like a valuable tool, I’d love to learn more about it.

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