Peer Assessment: Is It Really Helping Us Learn?

sophie mcnaughton

By Sophie McNaughton


Students have an array of different responses to the subject of group work and peer assessment. Some relish in being ‘the leader’, the driving force of a project where they can showcase their creativity and encourage their team members. Some quietly enjoy group tasks simply because it gives them the opportunity to hide behind the work of others, and contribute little-to-nothing to a project and get away with it. Others, however, dread group work and roll their eyes at the idea of what can sometimes feel like juvenile projects that were more appropriate at primary school.

Through a series of studies carried out in 2012 into the effectiveness of group work and peer assessment as an aid to learning, Maryellen Weimer PhD found that: ‘Our hypothesis of better learning outcomes with peer assessment was not supported. In fact, the data suggests that the opposite pattern may exist’.

Many can understand the initial logic behind allowing students to assess, and provide feedback for, each other. These kind of tasks are designed to push students out of their comfort zone, to boost their confidence when speaking to different people, improve their presentation skills, and their ability to speak coherently to a large group; all of which are traits that are deemed desirable by employers. In this essence, group work and peer assessment would appear to benefit the student body immensely. Unfortunately, however, drawbacks still remain.

As many students will admit, there is almost always one member of the team who will contribute less to the project than everyone else in the group while still receiving an equal portion of the grade and recognition that the group will ultimately be awarded at the end of the task. The solution to this issue seems simple: tell the team member to get more involved, stop slacking, and contribute as much as everyone else. Typically, however, students will be randomly put into groups with classmates they may not know too well, and telling someone you barely know to buck up and work harder isn’t going to be the easiest subject to broach, especially for introverts who may find group work challenging enough in itself.

Another disadvantage of peer assessment – and perhaps the biggest one – is simply that students are not qualified to assess anyone’s work.

While feedback from classmates can be helpful, there is only so much that students can do to help each other. We are not qualified to provide critiques or criticism, and we are certainly not qualified to mark each other’s work. The aspect of peer assessment which arguably bothers students the most is in the instances where students are responsible for providing part of their classmates overall grade. While it seems that peer assessment to this extent is more of way for teachers to save themselves time rather than a tool to aid learning, students providing each other with a percentage that will go towards their final grade is something I cannot see the need for.

Not only could a student be unlucky enough to be graded by a classmate who provides overly harsh criticism and, therefore, receives a worse grade than they deserve, or unfairly awarded a better grade than their work merits by a classmate who marks leniently, peer assessment also diminishes the anonymity of grading that every student should be entitled to. When you know a tutor is grading your report, essay or project, you are safe in the knowledge that they do not know whose piece of work they are marking, and you know that you are not being unfairly discriminated against or favoured. But by handing the reigns over to students themselves who, in most cases, will know whose work they are grading, the door is opened for discriminatory assessment and, possibly, even bullying. The question also arises that: if students are peer assessing themselves and their final grades, then why have a teacher at all?

Peer assessment and group work can be valuable learning experience with many benefits. But it is important to remember that students can only help each other to a limited extent, and that under no circumstances is a student qualified to provide a mark that could impact another student’s final grade without the supervision and cross-marking of a professional.

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