October 16, 2012

Peer Assessment: More Than Busy Work

By Anh Tran, Pharm.D., PGY1 Pharmacy Practice Resident, Medstar Union Memorial Hospital

Take a moment and think about a time when you were in high school or college and you were asked to assess your peers on their work.  Or vice versa.  I remember a time when I had just turned in a paper in an undergraduate English class.  The professor then informed us that we would be grading each other’s papers!  The first thought that went through my mind was, “This is just busy work!”  Actually, peer assessment can be a very effective learning tool. 

Peer assessment is the process whereby students receive a critical evaluation and feedback of their work from a similarly experienced individual, peer, or colleague.  This practice is commonly used in various settings, including pharmacy education.  For example, peer assessment can be used to evaluate a patient counseling session conducted by a student pharmacist or a pharmacotherapy presentation by a pharmacy resident.  Peer assessment plays a vital role in a pharmacist’s professional development, whether during school, experiential rotations, postgraduate training, or career. Furthermore, the practice of peer assessment promotes active learning, group work, and complex problem solving.

In addition to promoting these great aspects of learning, peer assessment has other distinct advantages.  Peer assessment enables faster and more detailed feedback.1  How many times have you turned in an assignment and waited for weeks for the professor to grade it and provide feedback?  Most likely, you forgot your thought process through that assignment and thus, the feedback is no longer useful to you.  Instead, having peers grade each other’s assignments provides more timely feedback, which is more useful because the assignment and the students’ thoughts are still fresh in their minds.  In addition, since assignments are being reviewed simultaneously by multiple graders, there is the potential for more detailed and in-depth feedback.

Peer assessment might have some advantages from a teaching and learning point of view, but what are students’ attitudes towards it?  In a study conducted by Wu and colleagues, 91.9% of PharmD students surveyed believed that peer assessment is a skill that they will use in their pharmacy career.  In terms of student-to-student peer evaluation, 80% of students were comfortable providing an honest assessment to their partner and 95.7% of students were comfortable receiving it. Furthermore, only 34.4% of the students believed that the assessment of students is solely the responsibility of faculty and not students.2  In another study, Basheti and colleagues demonstrated that anonymous peer feedback in a pharmacy course is an effective means of providing constructive feedback on performance.  The study found that 78.1% of students felt that their participation in the peer assessment process helped them to deepen their understanding of the course content and 78% of students would endorse the use of this practice in other courses.3  Thus, students felt comfortable with peer assessment and perceived it as a valuable tool in their education.

Peer assessment is consistent with the principles of andragogy.  In other words, peer assessment takes evaluation from “teacher-driven” to “learner-driven”.  By taking assessment out of the teacher’s hands, students have yet another learning opportunity.1  Peer assessment can lead to a deeper understanding of a topic by evaluating the work of others.3  For example, when I evaluated the English paper of an undergraduate peer, I was pleasantly surprised what I learned just from reading it!  We had written on the same topic, but we had different views and opinions.  By practicing peer assessment, students can discover other perspectives on a topic which can broaden their understanding.

Finally, peer assessment fosters metacognition, which is a knowledge or awareness of one’s own learning processes.1  By participating in peer assessment, students are in a better position to understand the grading criteria.  Thus, they can then internalize this understanding and apply it to their future work and to improve their own performance.  For example, in a practice patient counseling session, a pharmacy student grading a peer would develop a better understanding of best practices and can then apply these criteria to his/her future counseling sessions.

While peer assessment has many great qualities, there are some concerns.  Can peer assessment truly serve as a substitute for the teacher’s assessment?  Are these assessments valid?  Falchikov and colleagues attempted to answer these questions by performing a meta-analysis comparing peer and teacher assessments in higher education.  The meta-analysis showed a mean correlation over all the studies to be r = 0.69, indicating reasonably good agreement between peer and teacher assessments.4  Similarly, Sadler and colleagues conducted a study to determine the agreement between the grades given by a teacher and those given by a peer.  This study showed that peer-grades were highly correlated with teacher grades (r =905)!1

Assessment and evaluation are essential components of instructional design and peer assessment is a good way of engaging students in the classroom. Studies have identified ways to implement peer assessment by educators.   It’s important to provide training on the evaluation process to students and to provide clear criteria for peer feedback in order to avoid superficial comments.  In addition, professors should blind the reviews in order to reduce bias, since friendships may affect the accuracy of peer assessment.1

When educators implement structured, unbiased approachs to peer assessment, it can play an exceptional role.  Not only is it an effective learning tool, but peer assessment can foster team work, active learning, and metacognition.  Students realize the importance of peer assessment and are comfortable participating in such a process.  So the next time your professor announces that you’ll be grading your peers, embrace it and further your learning!

1.   Sadler PM, Good E. The impact of self- and peer-grading on student learning. Educational Assessment. 2006; 11(1):1-31.
3.   Basheti IA, Ryan G, Woulfe J, Bartimote-Aufflick K. Anonymous peer assessment of medication management reviews. Am J Pharm Educ. 2010; 74(5):77.  
4.   Falchikov N, Goldfinch J. Student peer assessment in higher education: a meta-analysis comparing peer and teacher marks. Review of Educational Research. 2000; 70(3):287-322.

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