A pre-condition to realise the benefits of peer review

In peer review, students both produce an assignment themselves and produce feedback reviews on the assignments created (written) by their peers. This discussion refers to the relationship between the student's own assignment and those that are reviewed.

Recent research shows that many of the learning benefits from producing reviews derive from the fact that students have beforehand written an assignment in the same topic domain as their peers  (Nicol, Thomson and Breslin, 2013). Specifically, when the topic domain is the same, evidence shows that students naturally use their own work as the initial standard or reference point against which they compare and evaluate the work of peers. This comparative process involves students in reflecting back and thinking about their own work (i.e. in generating feedback on their own work) with reference to the peer work. The result is that students report seeing things in the peers' assignments - approaches to the task, arguments or information - that they could use to improve their own work. Other students report seeing errors or gaps in the peer work but again they perceive this as beneficial as it alerts them to strengths in their own assignment, or to things they should pay attention to when they produce similar or related work in the future. In general, the core idea is that when students produce an assignment in the same domain as those to be reviewed, the reviewing process leads them to revisit, rehearse and reconstruct their knowledge and understanding in that topic domain (Nicol, Thomson and Breslin, 2013).  

A second benefit, when the assignment topic is in the same domain, is that students are more likely to evaluate the quality of one peer's assignment against that of another (assuming they are asked to review assignments from a number of peers).  A third merit of the same assignment domain, is that, the same criteria can often be applied to both to the assignment that students' write and to the ones they review. This dual application of criteria can have positive benefits in terms of their internalisation.  Nicol, Thomson and Breslin (2013) provide a more elaborate discussion of this point. However, one potential downside of the same domain principle is that practitioners and students might worry about plagiarism - students copying work from other students. This can however be dealt with by careful peer review design (see FAQs).  

Overall, what is critical in practice is how 'same domain' idea is interpreted and implemented - same topic domain does not necessarily mean same assignment so there is some latitude here. The following are some possibilities that might be considered and that might enhance students' learning from reviewing.

Note to the reader

In an earlier presentation of this topic, this 'same domain' idea was formulated as a principle of good peer review practice. This was in part because this was a key finding from more recent research at the University of Strathclyde.  However, after much reflection and discussion it was decided to propose this same domain idea as a precondition rather than a principle of design, as, in normal practice, most peer review designs will incorporate this condition by default. In that context, below are some considerations about the different ways this pre-condition might be implemented in practice.

Putting it into practice

  • Have all students do the same assignment topic but if plagiarism is a concern do not require students to update their own work after reviewing. Rather, ask them to say how they would improve it. This will make it easier to see if students are just copying or are interpreting the ideas, extending their understanding and constructing new understandings.
  • Students might use assignments they have produced in the past, for example, in earlier years of their course for the peer review. This might be used as induction into the peer review.
  • Students work on the same topic area but produce assignments that focus on different aspects of that topic. Hence each assignment overlaps in its knowledge content even though the actual topic is not identical. This would make it more likely that students would reflect back on their own work in comparison to situations where the topics for reviewing were completely unrelated.
  • Students might produce different genres for the target assignment (e.g. a presentation, a report, an essay) with their reviews being conducted on genres that students did not tackle themselves. Hence the content would be in the same domain thus facilitating reflection and transfer but the communication skills being developed would be in a different domain. 
  • With more knowledgeable and later year students it should be possible to relax the conditions defined by this principle because students will already have developed complex knowledge networks that span domains and their content knowledge will be far less compartmentalised..