Is peer feedback the most effective way to teach?

A recent study by the Wall Street Journal shows that colleges in US fail to teach students critical-thinking skills. The situation is so bad that:

“At more than half of schools, at least a third of seniors were unable to make a cohesive argument, assess the quality of evidence in a document or interpret data in a table”

The thing is, teaching critical thinking is not easy. Just like you can’t learn to ride a bike in a seminar, you can’t learn how to think critically by just spending a few hours practising before the test. So how can we teach critical thinking you ask? Like with bike-riding, the best way to learn is to spend a lot of time practising — and the best way to practise critical thinking is through peer feedback.

Enter peer feedback 👋

According to a study by The Education Endowment Foundation, some of the most effective ways to teach and learn are “Feedback”, so-called “Meta-cognition and self-regulation”, “Peer tutoring” and “Collaborative learning”. The thing that these 4 terms have in common, is that they are all components of peer feedback.

Peer feedback is the act of letting students give feedback to each others work. Students hand in some kind of work — it can be an essay, a poem, a solution to a math problem, a video production or even a Kahoot! quiz. Then each student receives a few pieces of work produced by their peers and gives feedback to it. Finally each student receives the feedback given to their work.

The use of peer feedback in teaching dates back to the 1950’s, but due to modern technology it has recently become popular again. Peer feedback is maybe the most effective way to teach critical thinking, and here are five reasons why I believe that is the case:

#1 Students are trained in higher order learning and critical thinking

When students have to read their peers work, reflect about its qualities and formulate constructive and helpful feedback, they have to think critically about what they are reading.

As most teachers have probably realised, one of the most effective ways to master material is to teach it to others. When students have to give feedback to their peers, they are asked to teach their peers about both subject matter and how to write effectively.

Most people in the teaching profession will be familiar with Bloom’s Taxonomy — a learning theory presenting a hierarchy of learning objectives ordered after complexity. At the bottom we have things like remembering and comprehending material and all the way at the top we have evaluation, which includes using information to form and defend opinions and judge a piece of work based on a set of ideas. By letting students become assessors, they get the chance to train these higher orders of learning.

#2 Students receive more feedback faster without extra work for the teacher

When a single teacher has to provide feedback to 20 or more students, the amount of time that can be devoted to each student quickly diminishes. This either results in less feedback to students, or in assigning less written work to students. I regularly talk to teachers that have started assigning less written work because they don’t have time to assess it.

Peer feedback is a simple way to let students get much more feedback on their work — we did a study showing that each student receives more than 1/2 a page of feedback per assignment on average when done right!. Not only is this a lot more feedback than most teachers can ever hope to give, but the feedback can come just hours after the students have handed in their work.

Since peer feedback makes it possible to provide all students with helpful feedback on their work within a single module, it is the perfect tool for process writing where students are asked to hand in their work, get feedback on it, then redo the work based on the feedback, and continuing this process until the work is good enough.

#3 Students reflect on their own learning

An effective way to ensure the quality of peer feedback is to use feedback rubrics and standards. These rubrics can be in the form of prompts that help students focus their feedback in the right way or in the form of evaluation criteria describing different levels of comprehension for a task. By letting students use these criteria themselves, they become familiar with the relevant criteria and understand the feedback they receive in a new way.

When students get aligned with the learning objectives, they get a chance to reflect on their own learning and how to improve their work. This trains students to have a growth mindset — a belief that intelligence can be developed which leads to a focus on learning over looking smart.

#4 Students are trained in giving and receiving feedback

One of the most important skills in the job market — no matter which industry you get into — is being able to give and receive feedback. Even though this is such an important thing to learn, students generally get very little training in it. I asked three students in their final year of university and they had still not had an actual class on giving feedback!

By letting students partake in feedback giving, they are trained in being able to express themselves in an understandable way. In order to ensure that students learn from the feedback they receive and in order to give an incentive to write great feedback, the feedback process should not end after the feedback is given. Ask students to give feedback on the feedback they have received and have them read their feedback carefully since this will help them recognise high quality feedback (spoiler alert, it should be constructive, specific, kind, justified and relevant).

#5 It is a collaborative and engaging activity

The last thing that makes peer feedback such a great teaching activity, is that beyond having impressive impacts on learning, it also facilitates a collaborative and social process between students. Students are asked to help each other, and research shows that this makes the process more meaningful and engages the students. Additionally it is a simple way to ensure that all students are actively engaged in something, instead of randomly (and is it ever really random) picking one student from the crowd to share their work at the blackboard.

Get out there and do it 🚀

The last step to make peer feedback effective is to actually make it happen. If you teach a class, try asking students to give feedback to each other. It doesn’t matter if you are teaching young kids or adults, creative writing or math — peer feedback can work in all settings.

Write a response here about your experience with peer feedback — I look forward to talking!

About The Author

David Kofoed Wind is co-founder and CEO of Peergrade, and PhD student at The Technical University of Denmark. You can connect with him on Twitter.

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