Because assessment in the learning process, including that offered by their peers, is to help students identify strengths and weaknesses, address target areas of necessary revisions, and most importantly to develop their academic skills, it should be carefully attended to throughout higher education. Undoubtedly, one of the key advantages of peer assessment is that it can be given in greater volume and with greater immediacy than tutor feedback.
Both academic research (see for example Magin and Helmore, 2001) and classroom teaching experience have shown that peer assessment can result in improvements in both the effectiveness and the quality of learning, especially in the case of academic writing. However, my experience with my pre-sessional, mainly Asian, pre-masters students, shows that it could also be highly beneficial in developing oral presentation skills. These often tend to be significantly weaker than their writing skills and require more complexity in performance.
The flowchart below introduces the methodology I followed, and underneath I share both my own and the students’ findings – based on their reflections throughout and at the end of the course – regarding the benefits and drawbacks of using peer assessment in oral presentations and improving oral academic skills.
I used this methodology with both six-week and ten-week pre-sessional students as a supplement to tutor feedback with oral presentation skills. It came as no surprise that the advantages of peer review in oral presentations greatly outnumbered its drawbacks. Although my own findings and my students’ reflections arrived at very similar conclusions, slight differences were revealed in terms of benefits and traps.
First of all, developing the skill of giving and receiving peer feedback enhances our students’ professional development, while also developing other transferable skills: diplomacy, negotiation, empathy, team- and pair-work and fair criticism. Furthermore, being assessed can help develop argumentative skills which boost confidence, while critically evaluating peers’ work empowers students to make judgements that count, both of which lead to higher levels of learner autonomy.
In terms of negative feedback, students reported that it was hard to point out mistakes and weaknesses considerately. Very often, in order to avoid this, they preferred to avoid expressing an opinion. Hence, if we substitute the term ‘weaknesses’ (which can be very discouraging) with ‘areas to improve’ as suggested by Topping (2009), we can reduce the assessee’s anxiety and can subsequently improve acceptance for criticism. Another way to mitigate demotivation can be accomplished by giving positive feedback first.
As for oral language patterns, being exposed to frequent peer assessment significantly contributed to talking more freely about one’s topic by using simple language as opposed to memorized script (since participants tend to be less anxious about talking to their peers, there is less urge for ready-made sentences), providing more down-to-earth explanation for a non-expert audience and using more fillers and panels, such as you know, I mean, so, actually, basically, right and so on. Also, the role of an assessor produces improvement in skills relating to asking questions, while being frequently assessed develops skills of addressing questions and reflecting on feedback.
Among the multiple benefits of peer review, I came across two possible threats mostly regarding procedures rater than outcomes. Firstly, since it requires a lot of preparation in material and arrangements, along with ‘assessor training’ and practice for students, we have to admit that it takes a lot of extra time and effort by the instructor. Secondly, different student attitudes and personality traits have to be taken into consideration. Introverted students need subsequent encouragement and motivation to perform assessment, while it takes a lot of energy to control ‘know-it-all’ students and take measures for equal participation and fair criticism.
We can conclude, based on tutor experience and student reflections, that peer assessment despite minor disadvantages, is worth the effort invested, because it provides a valuable addition to teacher feedback and contributes to the development of skills in oral presentations, other spoken interactions and social skills in multiple ways.
Keith J. Topping (2009) Peer Assessment, Theory Into Practice, 48:1, 20-27, DOI: 10.1080/00405840802577569
Douglas Magin & Phil Helmore (2001) Peer and Teacher Assessments of Oral Presentation Skills: How reliable are they?, Studies in Higher Education, 26:3, 287-298, DOI: 10.1080/03075070120076264
Reflections of students of groups PS6 43 (2014) and PS10 04 (2015), University of Bristol, CELFS