Peer Learning and Assessment

Peer Learning: an Overview

Peer Learning can be defined as students learning with and from each other without the intermediate intervention of faculty or TAs. Although faculty or TAs may set the stage for group work and check in, they typically allow students to seek answers on their own. Peer learning takes a variety of forms from collaborative to cooperative; from brief pairings of students to students working in larger groups over the course of the term; from discussions, wikis, and projects to peer assessment, case studies, and problem-based learning.

Why Use Peer Learning? Benefits

Research indicates that active learning better fosters student learning, especially deep learning. Not only is peer learning active, it is also social and most people require some social interaction to learn deeply and effectively.

Students benefit from peer learning in multiple ways. Working with peers provides students with opportunities to
  • Take responsibility for their own learning
  • Improve their skills in collaboration and team work
  • Become members of a learning community
  • Practice critical inquiry and reflection
  • Make decisions during uncertainty
Bostock, S. (2000); Boud, D., Cohen, R., & Sampson, J. (1999); Johnson, D. W., Johnson, R. T., & Smith, K. A. (1998)

In addition, "deep learning" is fostered in part by group work, which inherently gives students the opportunity to work with each other in finding meaning and "negotiating ideas" (Fraser & Deane, 1997). 

Peer Learning: Challenges

Some find implementing peer learning to be challenging, especially if they are trying it for the first time. When peer learning activities don’t go well, it is often because some aspect of the implementation was faulty. Sometimes the activity designed is not aligned with learning objectives or the task is unclear; in other instances groups function poorly.

Peer learning activities include groups formed for a single class session to groups working together over the course of the term. The size of a group is best determined by the task. In some instances students working in pairs will be most effective. For most learning activities groups should contain no more than 6 members. Although students often want to choose their own groups, research suggests that groups are often more effective when they are created randomly or designed intentionally by faculty or TAs.
Peer Learning Is a Continuum of Practices including....
  • Brief Classroom Assessment Techniques (CATs)
  • Small groups working together (discussions, wikis, projects, case-based learning, and problem-based learning
  • Formative and summative peer assessment

Best Practices for Successful Peer Learning

  • Follow best practices for creating and fostering groups
    "Skills based alignment is ideal." See section II: Group Generation Methods of JHU CER's "Making Group Projects Work" 
  • Create a classroom culture that supports peer learning
Communicate why you are using active learning and specifically peer learning to students and let them know that they can learn from each other. Students come to Hopkins to "learn from the experts" so it can be useful to indicate how your expertise informs and guides the learning activities. Additionally, incorporate your research and experience into the activities themselves or into a debriefing after the peer activity. 
  • Be clear about the task at hand
Distribute instructions and articulate the goal of the activity either electronically or in class and establish “deliverables.” When you are introducing a new task, it can be useful to model the activity or provide an example. In some instances a specific process might be articulated and there might be a single “right” answer or solution. In other instances the strategy may not be prescribed and the response might be open-ended. In either instance, conclude the activity with some form of reporting out (e.g. polling, assignment submission—even something as brief as a paragraph written by each student or by the group.)

For collaborative writing activities, it may benefit your students to understand the many considerations that should be considered before the actual writing. Please see this handout on Group Writing from The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for further information. You are free to distribute this document with attribution to UNC Chapel Hill under the terms of the Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 2.5.
  •  Use formative assessment to check the group’s progress both in terms of learning and group functioning
 Polls administered either in class or online can indicate whether students are progressing toward the intended learning objectives. For collaborative assignments that run over the course of the term, create weekly or bi-weekly milestones to check students’ progress in learning and assignment completion. Polling or surveys may also be used to assess a group’s functioning. We often ask students to provide feedback about group members at the end of the term but asking for brief feedback about group members mid-project can improve the group’s performance. 
  • Reinforce the learning process by providing feedback and opportunities for reflection and questions at the end of the activity
Feedback and reflection help students discover not only what they’ve learned, but also how they have learned.
  •  Incorporate peer learning activities into the course design so that they are part of the whole and not atomistic 

When exploring new learning activities we often start small. Starting small is frequently appropriate but ensure that your activity seems part of the course and not simply something that seems tacked on. Consider identifying course or class session learning objectives that can be easily addressed and assessed with peer learning. In many instances the peer learning activity can help students meet a learning objective without further individual assessment.

Tools to Facilitate Peer Learning Activities

  • CoursePlus
  • Peerwise: a free tool which instructors can set up for a class, which helps students delve into lecture, reading and/or activity content by creating and sharing their own assessment questions. Then they answer, evaluate and discuss each others’ questions and answers. Here's a 90 second introduction or a more in depth 8 minute introductory video about Peerwise. You might also need the very handy instructor and student guides provided on the Peerwise documentation site

Peer Assessment: an Overview 

Peer assessment can be defined as student assessment of the work or performance of other students using relevant criteria; it can be used for both formative and summative assessments. In some instances peers participate in the grading process; in other instances their primary role is providing feedback. In order to be successful, the targeted learning objectives, criteria for success, and the means for arriving at an accurate judgment must be clear. Rubrics are typically used to articulate criteria for success though checklists or a series of questions may work for some assignments

Peer assessment can be applied to a variety of student work: papers, projects, presentations, problem sets, etc. Although many faculty and students are leery of students' assigning grades, research indicates that when assessments are well designed, “students are relatively reliable assessors” (Ngar-Fun & Carless, 2006). When determining whether it is appropriate for students to assign grades, consider what's at stake for the students.

Types of Peer Assessment

  • 1 : 1+ -- Students providing feedback to one or more students
  • 1 : Group -- Students providing feedback to fellow group members
  • Group : Group -- Groups providing feedback to other groups
diagram of peer assessment types

Why Use Peer Assessment?

Through making critical judgments about the work of others, students join a community of scholarship and learn to be assessors (an essential skill in the practice of public health). Research indicates that peer assessment leads to improved student performance. Specifically, peer assessment
  • Encourages critical thinking and the ability to self-assess (students gain insight into their own work)
  • Increases the amount and timeliness of feedback students receive
  • Exposes peer graders and recipients to multiple viewpoints
  • Enables students to take an active role in managing their learning
  • Fosters deep learning as articulating understanding of material reinforces the learning process
 Bostock, S., (2000); Ngar-Fun, L., & Carless, D. (2006); Topping, K. J. (2009).

Challenges and Best Practices

Students may resist peer assessment because they feel faculty are pushing their work onto students or that their peers, because they are not yet experts, cannot provide meaningful feedback. They are particularly fearful of peer assessment when it is used to provide a final grade on an assignment. Providing multiple opportunities for assessment can make students more comfortable.

Best Practices for Summative Peer Assessment

  • Incorporate the quality of peer feedback given to peers into students’ grades
  • Ensure that feedback is concrete and addresses specific task-related accomplishments
  • Use rubrics or checklists to clearly articulate the grading criteria
  • Remind students of what they are gaining through assessing the work of others
  • Consider asking multiple students to grade a single student’s work and average the score

References and Resources

Online: Journal Articles
Sara Hill,
Mar 31, 2014, 10:49 AM