Academic Exchange Quarterly     Summer    2006    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume  10, Issue  2

To cite, use print source rather than  this on-line version which  may not  reflect print copy format requirements or   text lay-out and pagination.

 

Perceptions of Web-mediated Peer Assessment

 

Lan Li, University of Nebraska in Lincoln, NE

Allen L, Steckelberg, University of Nebraska in Lincoln, NE

 

Li, is an instructor and doctoral student at the College of Education and Human Sciences, and Steckelberg, Ph.D., is an associate professor at the College of Education and Human Sciences.

 

 

Abstract

Previous studies have revealed that peer pressure is a factor in negative student perceptions of peer assessment. In this study, a web-mediated system was utilized to facilitate peer assessment and provide anonymity minimizing the impact of peer pressure. Post-assessment survey results indicated that students generally accepted this method and recognized its’ value in promoting critical learning. The merits of anonymity and instant feedback were acknowledged in student responses.

 

 

Introduction

Peer assessment has become one of the most common strategies for shifting students’ roles in learning from passively observing to actively participating in higher education in the past two decades.

 

Peer assessment is a process in which students evaluate the achievement or performance of others of similar status (Topping, Smith, Swanson, & Elliot, 2000). Peer assessment has been “viewed as having significant pedagogic value” (Patri, 2002). Peer assessment’s benefits in promoting higher order thinking and supporting cooperative learning have been established. Pope (2001) suggested that peer assessment stimulates student motivation and encourages deeper learning. Freeman (1995) noted that studying the marking criteria and evaluating peers’ work could improve students’ awareness of their own work and encourage deeper understanding. Topping (1998), after reviewing 109 articles focusing on peer assessment, confirmed that peer assessment yields cognitive benefits for both assessors and assessees in multiple ways. Those “benefits might accrue before, during and after” the process. He further concluded that feedback yielded from this process has a positive impact on students’ grades and subjective perceptions. Researchers have generally agreed that peer assessment promotes student autonomy and facilitates meaningful learning (Freeman, 1995; Pope, 2001). However, despite this widespread acceptance of this process, there were only a very limited number of publications in literature exploring how students view this method (Hanrahan & Isaacs, 2001).

 

In general, the literature reveals that student perceptions towards peer assessment are twofold: On one hand, students acknowledge and recognize the merits of peer assessment; on the other hand, a number of diverse reasons caused student negative or unsure feelings.

 

Gatfield (1999) utilized peer assessment in a compulsory international marketing management course. After peer assessment, students were asked to respond to a survey regarding their attitudes towards peer assessment. The analysis of the survey was divided into three parts. The first part considered students’ perceptions of the suitability of the peer assessment method in that course. The second part dealt with the degree of student satisfaction. The third part solicited student suggestions for improvement of the process. Data analysis indicated that students in general held an approximate level of agreement and showed an acceptance of the method of peer assessment. Data also revealed that overall there was a high level of student satisfaction. Students’ suggestions for improvement were for tutors to offer more consultation time and to allocate more time in tutorials to assist group work.

 

This finding of positive student attitudes was also supported by Stefani’s study (1994). Almost all the participants in his study indicated that peer assessment made them think more and 85% students said that it made them learn more than traditional assessments of their work. In their study, Hanrahan and Isaacs (2001) presented an analysis of the views of a large number of students (233) who had just experienced self- and peer-feedback as part of one of their subjects. The data indicated that students felt that they benefited from the intervention.

 

Although most students enjoy peer assessment and understand its values, not all the experiences associated with peer assessment were favorable. Besides positive themes like “gained better understanding”; “productive” (including learning benefits and improved work) and “motivation” (to impress peers), data from Hanrahan and Isaacs (2001)’s study also revealed other themes of student perceptions such as discomfort cause by peer pressure (associated with having peers rating own paper and critiquing others) and problems with implementation (such as “time-consuming”, “process not taken seriously/doesn’t count for marks”, etc). This picture was confirmed by a number of other studies. Falchikov (1986) reported students least liked features in her study: “difficulty of task”, “possibility of marking down/failing a peer” and “system was too rigid/clinical”. Chen and Warren (1997) conducted a study focusing on students who changed their attitude before and after peer assessment and the reasons given for these shifts. The reasons that caused students to switch from being positive, or unsure of peer assessment to being negative included students’ ability to assess peers, students’ seriousness, distribution of peer marks in students’ grades, limited training and peer pressure/objectivity (Students “felt compelled to award a higher score to those with whom they were more friendly”. Some student felt that this process was ‘unfair and risky’).

 

Some of the above problems causing student negative perceptions of peer assessment can be overcome by improving the peer assessment process. For example, instructors may use scaffolding to reduce difficulty of task or provide more effective training to help student get deeper understanding of subjects and acquire basic assessment skills. Some are hard to control, such as peer pressure. One assumption of this process’s credibility is that students usually provide fair and unbiased feedback to their peers. However, students find it difficult to rate their peers. They don’t want to be too harsh on their peers; they are uncomfortable critiquing others’ work. Conducted in an open environment, potential biases like friendship, gender or race could cause students to rate good performance down or poor performance up. Instructors need to design and maintain a distribution system to keep both reviewers’ and reviewees’ information confidential and anonymous, and at the same time, traceable for instructors to maintain the fluency of the process. The importance of maintaining anonymity of peer assessment has been realized and suggested by researchers (e.g. Davies, 2002).

 

However, most current peer assessment methods are conducted through paper-based systems. In such systems, it is extremely hard and time-consuming to maintain an anonymous environment. Falchikov and Magin’s (1997) reviewed studies demonstrating that students’ gender can be revealed from their style of handwriting and Hanrahan and Isaac (2001) reported more than 40 person hours for documentation work in classes with 244 students to manage an anonymous peer feedback distribution.

 

Web-mediated peer assessment has been proposed as a solution to provide anonymity. In this system, data can be automated and summarized, and students and instructors have instant access to data once they are generated. Moreover, the whole process can be conducted in an anonymous way via the Internet. Reviewers and reviewees are not aware of each other. Ideally, anonymity provided in a web-mediated peer assessment should diminish peer pressure substantially. Therefore, student discomfort caused by peer pressure should be reduced. This paper explores student perceptions following an anonymous web-mediated peer assessment system.

 

Facilitating Website

A database-driven website was built to provide anonymity and facilitate peer assessment process (Li & Steckelberg, 2005). This system contained separate interfaces for instructors and students. In the student interface, once students logged in, each student was randomly assigned two peers’ projects. Students performed two roles in this system – reviewers and reviewees. As reviewers, they rated and commented upon peers’ projects confidentially according to the marking criteria. The data were summarized for the author of each project; as reviewees, they had access to the feedback for their own projects. The instructor interface was designed to enable instructors to keep track of peer review process. For each student, the instructor had access to the two reviews created by the student as well as the feedback this student’s project received from two peers.

 

This system has the following major merits:

1.      Anonymity was assured. This system ensured anonymity in two ways. First, students’ identities were coded as numbers. Students were instructed to remove any personal information from their projects. No personal information, such as initials of their names, could be associated with their work. Secondly, students’ projects were typed and running in Internet, no handwriting would reveal their identities or characteristics, such as gender.

2.      Management workload was reduced. All the data collected were automatically summarized and transmitted from users’ computers to database. Management workload was reduced substantially.

3.      Students’ interaction was stimulated. Students and instructors had immediate access to feedback as it was submitted, which encouraged students’ engagement and promoted their interaction.

 

Methods

 

Subjects

Forty-nine students from an undergraduate course at a central US university participated in this study. Eight students dropped out in the middle of the process for personal reasons and forty-one students completed the study. Since this course is a required technology application course for pre-service teachers at a college level, students have different academic backgrounds and range from freshman to senior standing.

 

Preparation for peer assessment

Since peer assessment was a new concept for most students, discussions of advantages and disadvantages of peer assessment were given in class. Students were also introduced to the web-mediated peer assessment site. Special attention was given to explaining the anonymity features of this system. After the introduction, students should have familiarized themselves with the site and its use.

 

Procedure

In this study, students were asked to build a WebQuest project and upload it to the Internet. A WebQuest is “an inquiry-oriented activity in which most or all of the information used by learners is drawn from the Web” (Dodge & March, 1995). This model, developed by Bernie Dodge and Tom March in early 1995, is designed to involve users in a learning process of analysis, synthesis and evaluation, which promotes their critical thinking and scaffolding skills. The peer assessment process was used to help students improve the quality of WebQuest project.

 

Step 1:  Studying the content area and discussing assessment criteria

After thoroughly studying the content area, students were presented a rubric and were asked to study it. The assessment rubric was studied in two levels in a student-centered atmosphere. First students formed groups and discussed the rubric; then they were encouraged to share their understanding in class.

 

Step 2: Applying assessment skills

The goal of this step was to make sure that students would have basic assessment skills to assess their peers. One example project was provided and students were asked to use the rubric to rate it. Students grading and instructor grading were compared and discussed in class.

 

Step 3: Developing project

Students were requested to construct a WebQuest project and make it available on the Internet.

 

Step 4: Judging the performance of peers and providing feedback

Once students logged onto the peer feedback website, they had access to two randomly assigned peers’ WebQuest projects. Students were asked to rate the projects according to the rubric and provide detailed comments and suggestions.

 

Step 5: Reviewing peer feedback and improving their own projects

Feedback from peers was automatically summarized and made available to the creator of each project. After viewing the peer rating scores and comments, students were asked to go back to improve their own projects.

 

Step 6: Completing the post-assessment survey

After students completed their final projects, they were asked to fill in a survey. Forty-one students responded to this survey. The survey was adapted from a previous study (Lin, Liu, & Yuan, 2002) and consisted of 11 five-point Likert Scale items (ranging from 1/strongly disagree to 5/strongly agree) dealing with students’ general perceptions about the process, as well as two open-ended questions related to their likes and dislikes: “Please specify what you like most about this peer assessment procedure.” “How would you change this peer assessment procedure? And why?”

 

Results

This survey (Table 1) provides a positive picture of students’ perceptions of peer assessment through the web-mediated system. Students’ responses expressed more than general satisfaction level for most of the items.

 

For the first open-ended question (“Please specify what you like most about this peer assessment procedure.”), four major themes were identified. First, feedback that students received from peers helped them reconsider and improve their projects. Student indicated that it was really beneficial to “look at what others are doing”. Some students got “inspired” by peers’ work. Secondly, the opportunity to review and grade peers’ performance urged students on to greater efforts in the content area and the marking criteria. “I spent more time (studying the project and rubric)”. “It was quite a responsibility to grade others”. The third theme was the comfort brought by anonymous marking. Anonymity provided by this web-mediated peer assessment system provided students a rather “relaxing” environment and less pressure from peers. The last theme was student appreciation for instant feedback.

 

For the second open-ended question (“How would you change this peer assessment procedure? And why?”), three themes emerged. First, several students stressed their satisfaction with this web-mediated process. They stated that they wouldn’t suggest any changes.  Secondly, some students would like to have more time for this project. Some students specifically noted that they wish they had more time to rethink how to modify/revise their projects after receiving peer comments. Finally, some students asked for more critical and constructive feedback. “I got (a) good score and nice comments (for my project). (But) I know my WebQuest is not perfect”. “I’d like them to tell what they really think”.

 

Conclusion

This study utilized a web-mediated system in peer assessment of an undergraduate course. Students’ perceptions towards the peer assessment method in this system were explored and results indicated that in general, students acknowledged peer assessment and recognized the merits of this web-mediated system. This result replicated, on a larger scale, the findings from a previous study with a smaller student group utilizing this web-mediated system (Li & Steckelberg, 2005).

 

Anonymity is one of the major concerns of conducting peer assessment in paper-based systems. One of special features of this system is to provide student anonymity to minimize the impact of peer pressure, thus improving the accuracy of peer assessment. The literature suggests that peer pressure contributes directly to student negative feelings regarding peer assessment. These feelings included not feeling comfortable rating/critiquing peers’ work, feeling obligated to assign friends a higher score, etc. Since anonymity was provided in this study, peer pressure should be substantially minimized. This was confirmed from student survey response. For the last item of the survey “I felt that I was critical of others when marking peers’ work.” The mean score was 4.00 with a standard deviation of .92. This suggested that most students felt quite comfortable rating peers’ work and being critical. This was further confirmed by student responses – “less pressure from peers” to the first open-ended question about the most liked feature of this peer assessment method.

 

Overall, the authors felt that the peer assessment process in this study was a worthwhile activity. During this process, students were fully engaged and they shifted their roles from reviewers to reviewees. During this process, students’ interaction was stimulated and their critical thinking skills were fostered. At the same time, anonymity was provided and administrative workload was substantially reduced. Compared to paper-based systems, a web-mediated system is certainly promising. However, the authors do realize that, unlike face-to-face peer assessment, where students exchange thoughts and opinions, the interaction facilitated in this web-mediated system goes only one-way (from reviewers to reviewees). There was no opportunity for reviewees to let reviewers know their opinions/responses on reviewers’ feedback, their reactions to reviewer’s comments, or discuss particular aspects of the review in greater details. This is a limitation of the current web-mediated peer assessment approach. Providing a two-way and multilayer interaction in this anonymous environment presents an intriguing opportunity for further investigation. This kind of “feedback on feedback” is likely to be beneficial in promoting both parties’ understanding of subject matter and fostering their critical thinking skills.

 

 

 

Reference

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Davies, P. (2002). Using Student Reflective Self-Assessment for Awarding Degree Classifications. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 39(4), 307-319.

Falchikov, N. (1986). Product comparisons and process benefits of collaborative peer and self-assessments. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 11, 146–166.

Falchikov, N., & Magin, D. (1997). Detecting gender bias in peer marking of students' group process work. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 22(4), 385-396.

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Pope, N. (2001). An examination of the use of peer rating for formative assessment in the context of the theory of consumption values. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 26(3), 235-246.

Stefani, L. A. J. (1994). Peer, self and tutor assessment; relative reliabilities. Studies in higher Education. 19(1), 69-75.

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Topping, K. J., Smith, E. F., Swanson, I., & Elliot, A. (2000). Formative peer assessment of academic writing between postgraduate students. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 25(2), 149-169.