Peer evaluation can be an effective teaching tool, not only for evaluation, but also to help students acquire key skills in your courses. It entails asking your students to evaluate one another’s performance in specific course-related tasks, according to guidelines which you provide to them, either informally or as a formal rubric. Depending upon the way in which peer evaluation is implemented, it can save faculty time which might otherwise be spent on grading. More critically, it can in some cases actually prove more effective in accomplishing specific learning objectives than traditional instructor-driven feedback, alone. Peer evaluation can be used both for individual assignments and within small groups.
Students actually learn through peer evaluation because (a) they must master the criteria for evaluation; (b) they must, in a sense, teach one another; (c) they learn from the feedback which they receive from peers; and (d) they apply these experience to their own work in a process of self –evaluation or self-reflection. First, by mastering the criteria for evaluation and then applying that mastery in the evaluation (and teaching) of their peers, students do something with their knowledge actively. In other words, by placing themselves in the role of teacher, they learn more effectively as students. A student’s practice with evaluation, together with the feedback received from classmates, better equips that student to evaluate his or her own work and determine how best to improve it, including implementing classmates’ feedback.
Providing your students with specific criteria for feedback is critical. Simply asking students to evaluate each other’s work in a general sense is likely to result in ineffective or widely varying feedback. (It may, however, be a useful exercise to ask students to evaluate one another without more specific instruction first, before having them reflect upon the criteria they adopted for evaluation, as a method of inductively producing standardized criteria of evaluation for the class.) Providing a rubric to students is generally advisable—it may denote a few categories of evaluation or provide more complex instructions, depending upon the topic/skill area.
It may be beneficial to scaffold peer evaluation. Begin by modeling evaluation at the beginning of the semester, and then gradually asking students to engage in more peer evaluation, while you provide guidance and withdraw your own evaluation. You might, for example, give an assignment and model your evaluation in class, and then ask students to complete a similar assignment online, while evaluating two of their peers. You could then discuss the effectiveness of that peer evaluation in a following class.
In addition to providing rubrics and guidelines, be explicit with your students about the purpose of peer evaluation. Explain that conscientiously undertaking the task of peer feedback—including critical feedback—is mutually beneficial to the learning of all students, for the reasons outlined above. In other words, the primary goal is not to arrive at a grade, but for students to learn. Explaining the rationale for peer feedback can both alleviate student anxieties and minimize the tendency of some students to inflate evaluations of their peers. Such inflation is not an insignificant concern, as students could, for example, agree with one another to evaluate each other favorably, regardless of performance. One way to prevent this possibility is for you, the instructor, to grade the feedback, itself, and incorporate that grade into the student’s overall grade for the assignment.
For smaller, low stakes assignments, it may be sufficient to rely upon peer evaluation alone to arrive at the student’s grade, particularly when two or three peers have provided an evaluation, and when those evaluations have been assigned randomly. For larger assignments, higher stakes assignments, however, it is advisable for the instructor’s evaluation to comprise the largest portion of the grade (you might, for example determine that your own evaluation comprises 3/5 of the grade, the evaluation by their peers comprise 1/5, and their own evaluation of peers comprise the final 1/5).