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Using Peer Assessment to Increase Student Participation in the Learning Process

 

Zuzana Šaffková

 

Introduction

 

The main goal of teacher training programs is to offer trainees extensive opportunities for professional development.  Such opportunities should “(1) engender an attitude favourable to continued growth and change, and  (2) to provide the skills necessary for analyzing teaching performance, for evaluating new ideas, and for implementing those ideas deemed worthy of putting into practice as part of individual career  growth “ (Pennington in Richards and Nunan, 1990, p. 136).  One way of developing some of these skills and attitudes may be through the implementation of peer assessment as a means of involving trainees in taking more responsibility for their own learning. There were three main reasons for using peer assessment in a TEFL methodology course for fourth year students at the English department at the Technical University of Liberec. First of all, since this was the last course whose content was extensively grounded on the students´ teaching experiences, they had a chance to exchange and evaluate different teaching practices in light of the theory obtained within their four-year studies. Then, they could also practise skills and strategies necessary for sound assessment and thus develop and refine invaluable skills for lifelong learning. Finally, as the students had to reflect on their teaching practice by the use of verbal presentations, they had an opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding of a variety of issues from the field of TEFL methodology and their ability to demonstrate this in a comprehensible, professional and attractive way. The students´ performances served also for the teacher as a source for evaluating their linguistic and academic proficiency as well as their career-readiness.

 

Course assignment

 

The TEFL methodology course was the last course in the four-year teacher training program and thus its aim was to consolidate and also assess the students´ knowledge and competencies in the respective field. The last part of the course was therefore devoted to the students´ presentations in which they were to show to what extent they acquired the learning objectives and how properly they were able to integrate a large volume of information into a substantial presentation. The students formed small groups each of which had to choose one specific issue from the TEFL domain based on their own teaching experience, reflect on it and present their findings via PowerPoint presentations. These investigative projects were a follow-up to portfolios from their teaching practice and reflective essays in which they analyzed their four-week teaching practice. Therefore, they had collected enough material they could use to demonstrate their ability to analyse a specific teaching aspect in light of theory and they had also gained a variety of skills necessary for sound reflection.  The portfolio and the essay required from the students not just an introspective reflection but also appraisal of this in a wider context of professional literature on teaching and learning. This first phase served as a preparation for their projects in which they had to identify a specific teaching/learning issue and its attributes, define the issue, gather evidence to support the conclusion/s, and provide necessary clarifications and possible suggestions. In order to become familiar with the content and framework of the projects, the students were provided clear guidance in conducting their presentations and tips to succeed in their performances.

First of all, a specific teaching/learning aspect that each group had selected had to be conceived from the perspective of both theory and practice, showing that the students investigated consciously a variety of knowledge sources and were able to find connections between them. Then, each presentation had to comply with a logically structured arrangement of a talk, including effective opening, powerful conclusion, as well as linking statements.  All the members of the groups had to participate in a presentation; however, allocation of the duties for each particular student in the period of the preparation and within the presentations was up to the students´ preferences.  Since a ten-minute-time limit had been set for the presentations, the students had to demonstrate also their ability to choose the key ideas and to condense fairly complex issues into meaningful short talks.  The decision to make students give presentations was based on the assumption that oral presentation is a good practice for the student’s critical and creative thinking and also for the  integration of skills.

 

Oral presentation offers students the opportunity to practise synthesizing material into a manageable form that is easily comprehended by others and therefore helps them develop competencies that they will utilize in their future working lives. Since the students worked in small groups they could also practice a variety of social skills “which facilitate teamwork, create trust and enhance communication, leadership, problem-solving and decision-making in group interaction” (Crandal in Arnold, 1999, p. 228).  Moreover, in such a cooperative environment “an interdependence is established among the students in each group as they strive for the achievement of group or individual objective. On the one hand, it frequently offers group rewards (in the form of points or grades) as its prime motivation; on the other, it urges students to develop more fully their own individual identities while respecting those of others” (Richard-Amato, 1988, p. 193).    From the point of view of the teacher, the student presentations also served as a means of assessing their adequate learning outcomes.   The whole format of assessment procedure corresponded with authentic assessment that involves students in tasks requiring the application of knowledge and skills necessary for situations and problems likely to be encountered in real-life circumstances. Since authentic assessment can be effectuated, among others, by means of self assessment or peer assessment, the latter one was adopted for the evaluation of the students´ presentations.   

 

 

Peer assessment

 

Assessment is an important part of the teaching and learning process that enables teachers as well as learners to obtain information about their progress and thus it is an important tool to enhance student learning. One of the most effective forms of assessment is peer assessment since it involves the students themselves in the process of judging their own and their peers´ work. The advantage of peer assessment is that the students judge something that they have experienced themselves and therefore can see the progress from a closer perspective than the teacher. Moreover, the students are usually well disposed to accept criticism from their peers and learn how to take it and make sense of what they hear. Finally, through peer-assessment they learn how to use criteria to appraise their colleagues´ performances and how to formulate their conclusions in order to provide sound and constructive feedback. Therefore, peer assessment is “a valuable assessment strategy that creates engagement, community building, and critical reflection on the learning process” (Dawley, 2007, p. 179). Even if the main purpose of peer assessment is to accelerate effective learning and thus it complies with the formative way of evaluation, it can be also used as a tool for providing a summary of student achievement by means of certain measures (grades, points, percentages). This rather summative purpose of assessment  “represents a valid and reliable sampling of student achievements, which leads to a meaningful statement of what they know, understand and can do” (Brown and Knight, 1994, p. 37). Peer assessment used for evaluating students´ presentations in the TEFL methodology course fulfilled both functions. Information collected throughout peer assessment designated for providing feedback to the students about their progress was used later by the teacher as a source for judging their overall attainment. The validity of the assessment was guaranteed by the use of clear criteria specified in advance, anonymity of the assessors and multiple evaluation of each presentation by the students and by the tutor. The criteria were discussed and modified in compliance with the students´ expectations so that they could have a clear idea about what it is they were going to asses and thus could easily and clearly expressed their verdicts. As Boud (1995, p.170) stresses: “Unless students can appreciate what requirements good work in their chosen field should satisfy it is unlikely that they will be able to contribute effectively to it themselves”. The final version of the marking scheme contained crucial items of good practice concerning the aspects of the content of the Power point presentations as well as the way they were delivered. The criteria (see Figure l) helped the students consider to what extent the performance was satisfactory or unsatisfactory and they could also appraise the key aspects of their peers´ oral presentations.

 

1-Content  
Clear formulation of the issue  
Originality of the theme  
Clear objectives and purpose  
Use of data to investigate the issue  
2- Powerpoint presentation  
Effective use of visual aids  
Natural, enthusiastic presentation  
English : appropriate pronounciation, fluency, vocabulary  
3- Time management  
   


Figure 1: Peer assessment marking scheme

 

This analytical scale allowed the assessors to evaluate separate categories qualitatively and after that to add an overall score. Selected aspects of the presentations were assigned points suggested in the table, one point was subtracted in case the student did not observe the time limit, and finally the total score was computed. Apart from assigning a certain value to each facet of the presentation, the students could also provide a short commentary on their colleagues´ work, which enhanced the process of learning. The fact that students give and receive constructive feedback becomes a crucial component of the learning environment (Boud, 1995, pp.200-206). In order to ensure that the feedback would serve its formative function, in preceding sessions the students had been reminded of crucial rules concerning a constructive and helpful feedback and  had checked a few examples of effective wording. „In general such feedback is specific, descriptive, predominantly non-judgmental in tone and form, directed towards the goals of the person receiving it and well timed” (Boud, 1995. p. 2001).  Even if it was not possible for each student to receive feedback from all the others, by listening to comments on their own and their peers´ performances, they were engaged in a more in-depth reflection, which is another step to a self-directed way of learning.  

 

 

 

Classroom implementation

 

A total of 93 students divided into 41 groups of two or three presented their investigative projects within the last EFL methodology classes of the semester. The students worked on the investigative project throughout the semester, meeting out-of-class to discuss and choose an interesting topic, search for literature, collect data and prepare a presentation. Up to a given date all the presentations were collected and their precise timing was determined. The assessment procedure went as following:

-         During these sessions one group gave a ten-minute presentation which was assessed by the other groups until all the groups had a presentation.

-         After each presentation, the students had 2 minutes to discuss their marking as well as possible comments and then two students from two different groups had a chance to give a brief feedback to the presenters.

-         After each presentation anonymous evaluations from the students as well as from the tutor were collected.

-         The students’ marks were later used for summative purposes. However, if there was an average of more that 20% difference between the students´ and the tutor’s total score in a student marking scheme it was eliminated.   

-         The total mark was awarded all the members of the group, i.e. all the members got the same number of points.

-         The final mark calculated from the students´ and the tutor’s evaluations was an important component of the final judgment of the students´ achievement in the TEFL methodology course.

 

Even if there was not enough time to rehearse peer-assessment in this course – though the students did have a few opportunities to practice peer assessment in other courses (e.g. Academic writing course, Introduction to Applied Research) – the students contributed to the discussions about the presentations, providing really descriptive and thus useful feedback. This may also be ascribed to the previous discussion about the requirements of giving  effective feedback. The students usually started with positive comments before telling the presenters what areas they should improve using concrete examples. Their marks also showed that they took the whole activity seriously since only 3 out of 41 group evaluations were eliminated due to a high score that did not correlate with the tutor evaluation. The lowest total score awarded by 8 groups was 12 and the highest total score 19 (5 groups). The average grade calculated from all the assessment forms was 16, which corresponded to 70% - a common passing grade required for this course.

 

 

Peer assessment, as it was implemented in the TEFL methodology course, proved to be an excellent opportunity for valuable learning. The students could reflect on their own work and that of their peers, they practiced a lot of cooperative and interpersonal skills in groups in order to succeed in their investigative projects, and they also could identify areas of strengths and weaknesses in their own progress. As the students themselves mentioned, they appreciated their contribution to the assessment rubric design and valued the assessors’ serious and thorough way of judgment. The fact that the students, not only the tutor, were going to evaluate their own performances using a scale that everybody agreed on motivated them to prepare and deliver their presentations as best as they could. This intrinsic motivation was an excellent source of promoting learning, which is paramount to student success. Nevertheless, several questions arose during and after the assessment procedure.

-         Did all the students take the task seriously? Some students might have hesitated to award weak presentations lower marks, not wishing to fail their peers. On the other hand they did not feel confident enough to give top grades to those who deserved them.  In order to minimize these inadequacies, the formative function of the peer assessment was emphasized and anonymity of marking was ensured. The students also knew that the presentations would be second-marked by the tutor and the overrated evaluations would be eliminated.  

-         Were all the students involved in team work? Some students indicated later that there were individual students who did not contribute much to the preparation of the presentation. This ´free rider´ effect usually happens when the students work on a single task (Slavin, 1996, p. 30); therefore, it is necessary to determine in advance what parts of the task each student will be responsible for. Another way to ensure that the students will be individually responsible for their learning is to split the total score among individual members of the team. 

-         Was the feedback given by the students an effective element of learning? Since peer assessment is a common practice in a variety of the English department courses, either in written or oral forms, the students had a lot of opportunities to rehearse different ways of giving feedback.  Therefore they had a lot of experience with different ways of giving as well as receiving feedback.  Nevertheless, in order to guarantee that both the tutor and the students would benefit from relevant information, the criteria for a constructive feedback were reviewed.

-         Was the peer-assessment a sound means of evaluation?  At the beginning of the assessment task, some students themselves doubted whether they were sophisticated enough to provide a valid evaluation and claimed that evaluation should be done by the tutor. However, after they were involved in designing the criteria for assessing their peers´ presentations, they gained more awareness of what to asses and thus more responsibility and expertise for the task. Involving students in the preparation of the marking scheme proved to be an effective activity since a rubric that uses “language intelligible to students, addresses competencies that are familiar to students, and includes performance features they perceive to be important” (Ross, 2006, p.8), improves the reliability and validity of assessment. Moreover the results from their evaluations showed that the students in general were quite accurate in their assessing.

 

The scope of the investigation could not confirm the presupposition that peer-assessment has an effect on the quality of the students´ performance. However, this can be proved by a high average score awarded to the presentations and by results from research that shows that students usually produce better quality work in their presentations if they are exposed to peer influence (Segers, 2003, p. 74).  The students themselves mentioned that they worked hard to prepare a presentation worth their peers´ interest. Using peer assessment for evaluating the students´ outcomes in TEFL methodology course appeared to be an effective task that encouraged the students´ involvement, responsibility and excellence. The results from peer assessment as well as the comments generated by the students were similar to the tutor’s and thus indicated their validity for both the formative and summative purposes of the evaluation.

 

Conclusion

The students as well as the tutor found peer assessment a helpful means of feedback and an effective source of learning. However, what emerged is that the success of peer assessment in both evaluating the students´ progress and enhancing their involvement in learning depends on how properly the whole process is planned, organized and conducted.  Further use of peer assessment should include more opportunities for the students to rehearse how to judge the work of others and how to appropriately formulate their comments. The students should also obtain feedback on their assessment performance to promote their learning. If all the requirements of a good practice in the use of peer assessment are taken into consideration, then this alternative to traditional form of assessment can benefit both the teacher who can create effective, professional and motivating instruction and the learners whose learning outcomes can be maximized.

 

Literature:

 

Arnolds, J. (ed.) Affect in Language Learning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. ISBN 0-521-65963-9.

BOUD, D. Enhancing Learning through Self Assessment. London, Philadelphia: Kogan Page, 1995. ISBN 0-7494-1368-9.

Brown, S. and P. Knight. Assessing Learners in Higher Education. London: Kogan Page, 1994.ISBN 07494-1113-9.

Dawley, L. The Tools for Successful On-line Learning. IGI Global, 2007. ISBN 978-1-59140-956-4.

Richard-Amato, P. A. Making it Happen. Interaction in the Second Language Classroom. New York : Longman, 1988. ISBN 0-8013-0027-4.

Richards, J.C. and D. Nunan [eds.]. Second Language Teacher Education. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990. ISBN 0-521-38779-5.

ROSS, J. A.. The Reliability, Validity, and Utility of Self-Assessment. Practical Assessment, Research & Evaluation. [on-line] Volume 11 Number 10, November 2006, 13 p. [cit.2010-10-4]. Dostupné z URL<http://pareonline.net/pdf/v11n10.pdf> ISSN 1531-7714.

Scharle, A. and A. Szabó. Learner Autonomy. A Guide to Developing Learner Responsibility. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. ISBN 978-0-521-77534-2.

SEGERS, M. (ed.) Optimising New Modes of Assessment: In Search of Qualities and Standards. Netherlands: Luwer Academic Publishers, 2003. ISBN 978-1-4020-1260-8.

SLAVIN, R.E. Education for All. Context for Learning. Netherlands: Taylor & Francis, 1996. ISBN 90-265-1473-9.

 

 

Abstract

 

One of the main goals of tertiary education is to instruct learners to “accept the idea that their own efforts are crucial to progress in learning and behave accordingly” (Scharle, Szabó, 2000). Peer assessment as one of the key elements of the learning and teaching experience helps accomplish this goal. The paper describes the implementation of peer assessment in an undergraduate course of TEFL methodology for fourth year students and attempts to support the idea that peer-assessment can provide valid evidence about student performance. The students in this course were expected to plan working on their team assignments, monitor the process of accomplishing the tasks and finally assess their peer-group learning outcomes. The primary purpose of using peer assessment was to create a learning environment that would facilitate the education of responsible and reflective professionals – future teachers. However, peer assessment as a complement to other sources of evidence of learning was also used to help the tutor evaluate the students´ knowledge and abilities and provide them with more accurate feedback. A two year experience with peer assessment applied to the course confirmed that this type of assessment can contribute to both formative and summative purposes and thus accelerate deep rather than surface learning since both content and process of learning are employed. The purpose of this paper is also to discuss some concerns relating to difficulties with the validity and reliability of this type of assessment.

 

Keywords: peer assessment, formative & summative assessment, learner autonomy, reliability, validity, learning process

 

PaedDr. Zuzana Šaffková, CSc., M.A.

 

Katedra anglického jazyka, FP TUL

zuzana.saffkova@tul.cz