4 Using peer assessment

Another way to use pair work in your class is to develop your students’ ability to evaluate their own work – not just for its presentation but also for the content. Most of your students will respond well to feedback on their work and participation. Research shows that one of the best ways to improve your students’ achievements is to give them constructive feedback on the work they do that goes beyond it being neat and tidy (Harlen et al., 2003). Students need feedback that will help them develop as competent learners, showing them their strengths and the areas that they need to work on to develop their understanding. Any feedback needs to be seen as useful by your students, otherwise they will not respond to it.

As well as encouraging your students to assess their own work, it is possible to develop your students’ ability to assess each other’s work and give feedback to their peers. Both approaches – often called assessment for learning (Black and Wiliam, 1998) – will have a significant impact on your students’ achievements and their perception of themselves as effective learners. Assessment is part of the teaching and learning cycle, but to be helpful it should be a regular part of everyday work in science in the classroom. Any feedback should be constructive and encourage students to take more responsibility for their own learning (Hodgson, 2010).

For peer assessment to be effective, you will have to help your students develop their evaluative skills. Language will play a key role in any feedback’s usefulness. It will take time and practice for them to develop the language and evaluation skills, but the results are worth the effort. There are key rules that you should introduce to help students value their work and role. These should include making sure that any feedback always starts with the positive and continues with those areas that need development, which should be presented constructively. Feedback should provide guidance as to how to improve their work using such statements as ‘When explaining how we breathe in, you needed to describe the stages more clearly and in the right order’.

Case Study 3: Using pair work for students to assess each other’s work

Mrs Nayal works with Class VII and describes what she did.

I had been doing some work on digestion with my class. I wanted to find out what each student understood and where any misunderstandings still existed. Because I have large class and I wanted this to be relatively quick, I decided to involve the students in evaluating each other’s knowledge. I gave them a task to do individually, and then asked them to exchange their responses with their partner. Each person would then examine what their partner had written and share their thoughts.

I set some rules to help them be constructive and supportive:

  • Start with a positive comment.
  • If you do not understand an answer, ask the student what they meant.
  • Suggest how the work can be improved.

We discussed what this might sound like. For example, I told them that they could say: ‘I think you have put the labels in the right order, but you need to explain how the food moves along the digestive tract more clearly.’

The students worked on their own, putting the labels of the organs in order from mouth to anus. They then had to explain how the food moves along the alimentary canal. After five minutes, I asked them to exchange their answers with their partner. They had to look carefully at their partner’s answers and look for the correct answers first, then seek out anything they didn’t understand, and finally suggest how to improve their understanding. I gave them five minutes to do this and then asked them to talk to each other, taking it in turns to give feedback. As they did this I walked round and listened to how they spoke to each other and what they were saying. I only interacted if there was a problem, as they needed to try to do the task themselves without my correcting them.

I asked students to write down what was said and think about how helpful they found the feedback. I asked for a show of hands from those who had found it useful and had received some helpful advice to improve their work. The majority were very positive, which made me feel that I wanted to develop this way of getting my students to evaluate their own and others’ work.

Activity 4: Using peer assessment in your classroom

Think about what work you will be doing with your classes about life processes. This will vary depending on the age of the students.

  • With younger students, if you are working on types of food and a balanced diet, you could ask them to each draw a picture of a healthy meal. They can then share this with their partner, and each student has to say whether they think their partner’s meal is healthy, explaining their reasoning.
  • With older students, if you are looking at how animals move, you could devise a task for each person to do about how they run. They can then exchange answers with their partner to consider how the muscles are involved.

Plan your lesson and gather the resources you need. Think how you will introduce students to the idea of giving each other feedback in their discussion. Set up the task for the students. Walk round the classroom as they work and listen to their talk. Only interact with them if they need help or support either with the science, or with listening and responding to each other.

Pause for thought

How did the students react to giving reach other feedback on their work? Do you think they learnt more about themselves as learners and how to give feedback? How do you know this?

For more information about helping students and yourself develop your expertise in giving feedback, see the key resource ‘Monitoring and giving feedback’.

Providing a safe context to try out ways of doing new things is important for most of us. Giving your students the opportunity to look at each other’s work and talk about it in a supportive environment will help them to develop good evaluative skills. They will also develop an understanding of the sensitivity needed to provide positive feedback. Read Resource 3, ‘Using pair work’, to remind you of what you have learnt by doing this unit. Pair work provides a supportive context for learning the skills and language necessary when assessing their own and each other’s work.

3 Advantages of pair work