Current thinking about the role of feedback in learning is changing. Several important articles that we've highlighted in previous issues have proposed less focus on teacher-provided feedback and more consideration of the role that can be played by peer- and self-assessment activities. As noted in this literature and confirmed by what teachers are seeing in their classrooms, many students are not using teacher-provided feedback to improve their work. In subsequent papers, projects, and even exams, the students are making the same errors. Thinking that perhaps this problem is a function of the kind of feedback teachers are providing, much work has focused on trying to help teachers deliver more effective feedback. But some are now proposing that teachers let peer- and self-assessment play a larger role in the feedback process.
The authors of the article referenced below elaborate by describing a “theoretical shift away from feedback as a ‘telling' or ‘delivery paradigm' [to] re-frame the way we might view feedback within a constructivist paradigm; in [peer] reviewing, students are not just learning by constructing meaning from feedback provided by others, rather they are learning by constructing feedback ‘meanings' themselves.” (p. 105) Their study documents how this happens.
The study analyzed implementation of peer review activities that occurred in a first-year engineering design class at a university in Scotland. The major assignment for the 82 students in the course involved research and design of a product. As part of the assignment, each student had to prepare a product design specification (PDS), described as a “detailed document specifying the requirements and constraints on the product being designed.” (p. 106) Students wrote drafts of these PDS documents, which were then reviewed by two of their classmates. The feedback was provided and received anonymously via an online software program. Peers used a teacher- supplied criteria to assess their colleagues. They provided comments but did not grade the draft. At the same time, students used the criteria and software to assess their own work.
The study reports data collected on a 21-item online survey that contained both closed and open-ended questions and on a series of focus group interviews that were recorded and then analyzed. Both the survey and interviews contained a range of questions about how students did the peer reviews, the sequence of steps they took, and what they were thinking as they completed the reviews.
The researchers found that “producing reviews engages students in multiple overlapping acts of evaluation or critical judgment, both about the work produced by others and about their own work.” (p. 116) For example, these students repeatedly describe a comparison process that involved the work they were reviewing and their own work. The students told researchers that “this comparison triggers a reflective process, where they use the feedback they generate for others to update their thinking about their own assignment.” (p. 116) Comparative judgments also occurred as students considered differences between the two PDS documents they were reviewing. And finally, the assessment criteria also encouraged critical reflection of the work done by their peers as well as their own work.
The focus group interview data made especially clear that “when students become the source and generators of feedback … a number of benefits ensue.” (p. 118) Students reported that the reflective processes involved in providing feedback gave them more control over the feedback process and their learning. The phrase “teaching themselves” captures their sense of what was happening. When given this control, students maintained that “their need for the receipt of feedback from peers or even the teacher might actually be reduced.” (p.118)
This is such interesting work. As these authors point out, students do use “inner feedback.” They make judgments about their work. Often their assessments are superficial. They use criteria of their own making, which are not always focused on the important components of the assignment. But not much thought is given to this inner feedback, by teachers and by researchers. “Little has been written about how these inner processes might be harnessed so that the need for external feedback is reduced, or specifically about how students might develop the ability to cope with discrepancies and conflicts between external and inner feedback.” (p. 118) The ability to accurately assess one's work is such a valuable professional skill. Shouldn't we be doing a better job of developing this skill in college?
These new ways of thinking about feedback do not rule out teacher-provided feedback or who grades the students' work. The new paradigm supplements what teachers provide. Students now play an active role in giving and receiving feedback, a process with the potential to develop an amazing array of skills. “These skills include the ability to engage with and take ownership of evaluation criteria, to make informed judgments about the quality of the work of others, to formulate and articulate these judgments in written form and, fundamentally, the ability to evaluate and improve one's own work based on these processes.” (p. 120)
Nicol, D., Thomson, A., and Breslin, C., (2014). Rethinking feedback practices in higher education: a peer review perspective. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 39 (1), 102-122.