Research on Peer Review
The argument below is an interpretation of the research on peer review based on very recent published findings and the work carried out in the PEER project (see Pilots). Detailed referencing and our own data will be added later but this brief account is intended to provide an initial orientation for those accessing the PEER pages on this site.
Why engage students in peer review?
Peer review develops important skills in students that help enhance learning and understanding. Peer review also prepares students for life beyond university as it helps develop their capacity to evaluate the quality and impact of their own work and the work produced by others. Peer review has two aspects that offer qualitatively different learning benefits - reviewing the work of others and receiving reviews from others. Fortunately these two aspects come together when peer review is implemented as students will normally take the role of reviewer as well as receiving reviews.Nonetheless, designers of peer review activities are urged to find ways of maximising the benefits of both processes, reviewing and being reviewed.
What do we mean by peer review and peer feedback?
The type of scenarios assumed in these pages is one where students make evaluative judgements about the work of other students and provide a feedback commentary, usually written. The judgement and the commentary are key aspects of peer review. Peer review will however be even more powerful if it is designed as part of a wider process that also involve dialogue and that help ensure that students have opportunities to act on the peer commentaries.
For clarity, note that the PEER pages on this website are not concerned with scenarios (i)where students engage in collaborative tasks and give each other informal feedback (ii) where students evaluate contributions to group working, or (ii) where students mark each other's work and where that mark counts as part of the final grade for the assignment.
Hence we are not here discussing peer assessment: rather we are talking about peer review. Indeed, it is possible that the over-focus on peer assessment in the research is one of the reasons why peer review is not so widely implemented across the HE sector. The research carried out within this PEER project shows that many students dislike being asked to mark other students work and receiving marks from other students. There are many reasons for this, including a belief by students that their peers do not have the expertise to mark reliably. In contrast, students are usually very positive about the benefits of peer review processes where marking is not involved. This project therefore focuses on scenarios where marking by students is not a key feature [e.g. see Engineering Design study under Pilots tab].
So what are the benefits of peer review where students are involved in receiving and giving feedback?
Receiving feedback from peers
Receiving reviews from peers can add to the feedback students receive, over and above that provided by the teacher. Additional benefits of peer review are that peer feedback is often more timely than teacher feedback. For example in collaborative project work students will often receive informal feedback from peers as they tackle a task rather than at the end when it might be of less direct use. Peers are also often better able to explain misconceptions or gaps in understanding to weaker students because they are closer in understanding and use a language that is more accessible than that of the teacher. Also, in many peer applications, students receive feedback from a number of other students. This makes it more likely that students will get the feedback they require than if only a single teacher responds to the assignment. Finally, peer feedback simulates how feedback operates in professional practice where students might get conflicting feedback messages which they have to reconcile in their responses.
Giving feedback to peers
Peer review is not just beneficial in providing students with extra feedback on their work, it also benefits students because they are required to actively produce feedback. Indeed it is arguable that the act of constructing feedback is more important for learning and development than the receipt of feedback from others. The argument for this assertion can be found in a recent paper by Nicol (2011) produced for the Quality Assurance Agency in Higher Education. Here is a brief, but not comprehensive, list of the benefits. Readers are directed to Nicol (2011) for the full argument and references.
- Giving feedback to others is a cognitive activity that is very demanding and requires significant student engagement; students cannot be passive when giving feedback whereas they can be passive in using the feedback they receive. Giving feedback involves meaning making or knowledge construction in ways that connect new knowledge with what students already know.
- Feedback construction requires that students actively engage with assessment criteria in order to produce a commentary. They must exercise the criteria many times and from many different perspectives. In doing this they internalise the criteria and become better at producing work themselves. Research shows that the most significant reason that students underperform in assignment tasks is that they do not fully understand what is expected of theme. Feedback construction where students have to produce a response to another's work against criteria helps to address this issue in a powerful and compelling way.
- Giving students regular experience in evaluating work and writing feedback commentaries in the same domain as they are producing work helps develop deep disciplinary expertise and writing skills. This process complements and elaborates on the feedback that students receive from teachers and peers on their own work.
- When students review the work of others they see many examples of the same work they are producing. From this they learn about different approaches to the assignment and they see the different ways that quality work can be produced. This stimulates self-reflection and leads to the transfer of learning to their own work.
- Peer feedback production moves us away from learning, and indeed assessment, as a private activity. If handled sensitively engaging students in giving and receiving feedback in a safe and trusting environment can even held foster the development of social cohesion and learning communities
- Importantly, making judgements about other's work and providing a feedback commentary helps students develop the ability to appraise their own work as exactly the same skills are involved. Hence peer review directly helps students to become more independent and more effective at self-regulating their own learning.