Developing Students as Peer Reviewers at Durham University

Ross Parker speaks to Rachel Simpson and Cath Reading

Students studying Education at Durham University are learning to become peer reviewers, providing formative feedback on the work of their peers. This can lead to greater levels of success, both in student’s academic and professional lives.

In this post I’ll explain how peer review was introduced in this course, the impact it’s made so far and also share some of the feedback from students involved in the project.

students working together at computer

About the Project

Lecturers Rachel Simpson and Cath Reading set about introducing peer review in the 2016-17 academic year. Their focus was to see if it could be used as a mechanism to help students develop graduate attributes and life-long learning skills. The students involved in this action research project were 80 level one students studying BA Primary Education.

For clarity, the focus of this project was peer feedback: students were required to give feedback to each other, but not grade the work of their peers. The latter is another concept: peer assessment.

Putting Peer Review into Practice

To introduce the concept of peer review, Rachel and Cath secured the services of Professor David Nicol, a leading researcher in the field. In his keynote lecture, Professor Nicol discussed how by engaging in peer review, students can develop higher-level skills such as critical thinking, judgment, and autonomy.

Rachel and Cath used Nicol’s Principles of good peer review practice as a framework to scaffold tasks throughout the year. The first task required students to review the work of previous students, which had been anonymised. This gave students the opportunity to review the work of others but without the added worry over what a peer might think – a concern raised by students in an early questionnaire. Details of how Cath and Rachel captured students’ attitudes towards peer review is discussed later in this article.

The main project activity was the Peer Review Block Task. This required each student to capture an audio recording of themselves teaching a short science activity in their respective placement schools. This recording would then be used for both self-review as well as peer review.

The scaffolded nature of the peer review tasks aimed for deeper student engagement as the year progressed. Therefore, by this final task, the students were able to set their own assessment criteria, conducted a self-review and were encouraged to engage in a dialogue with their peers to evaluate the feedback they had received. This process is outlined below in five carefully scaffolded activities:

  1. Decide review criteria
  2. Self-review
  3. Peer-review
  4. Peer-peer tutorial (discussing similar and different points)
  5. Self-reflection after peer-review – establishing future targets

You can view the full peer review block task here.

How did students feel about peer review?

Before any activities were introduced, students were asked about their feelings towards the concept of peer review. Just over half of the group’s responses were negative, stating a number of concerns about the process. This ranged from anxiety over criticising the work of their peers to fears of potential plagiarism. There was also some confusion as to why they were being asked to review the work of their peers – students (at least initially) saw this as the responsibility of the teacher. This was evident in the response of a student, who had first been introduced to peer review during their A-Levels.

“At [the] risk of sounding ‘lazy’ I didn’t feel it was fair that I would have to write my essay and then have to mark it, and another’s work, as well – it seemed unfair.” Anonymous.

After their first peer review task, students were asked whether they found the activity helpful or not, using criteria developed by Cath Reading. Of the students questioned, 88% said it was beneficial receiving reviews. However, only 12% of students identified benefits with reviewing the work of others. They didn’t see how reviewing the work of a peer was helping them; it was just something they were required to do so they all received feedback.

Mid-way through the year when visiting students at their placement schools, Rachel reported that opinions towards peer review had begun to change. When interviewed by Rachel, students reported that peer review was helping them to self-regulate their learning, be more effective communicators, and better understand quality in academic work.

After the final Peer Review Block Task students were asked what they found most useful; giving feedback, receiving feedback or both? The most popular answer was to give feedback. So, what caused this change in students’ perception of peer review from the feedback gathered at the start of the year?

As students got more experience of critically evaluating the work of their peers, they started to see how this was having a positive impact on their own learning. Some students reported working to improve their own understanding of taught materials before they felt ready to critically evaluate the work of their peers. Students also developed the ability to make objective judgments about academic work, by engaging with the assessment criteria. By the end of the year, 100% of comments about the peer review process was positive.

Challenges with Peer Review

Although the peer review project was ultimately well received by students, Rachel and Cath identified a number of challenges that remain. The first of these is students require secure subject knowledge in order to effectively critique the work of a peer. Secondly, they found that students would still seek the tutor’s verification of their peer reviews. There were also students who queried the process of peer review and wanted to see evidence of its effectiveness. A previous study into the effectiveness of peer review is discussed in the article ‘Rethinking feedback practices in higher education: a peer review perspective’  (Nicol, Thomson & Breslin, 2013).

Next Steps

Cath and Rachel will be continuing their work to develop peer review skills with this cohort of students throughout their second year. The process will start again with first year BA Primary Education students in October 2017.