This paper presents a reflexive account of student experience involved in a peer group setting where formal, written feedback was presented for the group to critique and review. As the impact was not the positive experience as the teacher intended, I felt compelled to turn my negative experience as the student concerned, into a positive outcome. As a result, the aim of this paper is to propose criteria as considerations for teachers to better prepare students prior to employing peer review sharing of written feedback, concluding with recommendations for further avenues of research in other educational contexts and from other participant perspectives.
The scope of this article
My account does not attempt to discuss the complexities of feedback or report upon where or how teacher feedback is successful, but draws attention to barriers for success when using feedback in peer settings and considerations for preparation. I will propose a set of criteria for teachers to better prepare students when using peer review.
Feedback, in this case teacher on student performance, has long been discussed by many (such as Millar et al., 2010; Mitchell & Pearson, 2012; North, 2005), often portrayed or promoted for encouraging greater student involvement in their learning experience and aiding progress (for example Lillis, 2002; Wiliam, 2009; McNiff & Whitehead, 2010). Portrayed as an interactive approach (North, 2005; Torrance & Pryor, 1998), Black and Wiliam (1998) convincingly argue as an essential component of assessment for learning (Coffin et al., 2010; Campbell, 2007; Wiliam, 2009), relying on student involvement as an iterative process.
However, according to Millar et al., (2010, p. 1), although assessment feedback is ‘increasingly seen as an important learning tool’, they also recognise the experience is not as positive as intended whilst Knight (2008 cited in Mitchell and Pearson, 2012 p. 73) argues feedback often viewed by students as increasing marks rather than internalising learning.
Nevertheless, despite feedback reported by government as a positive approach for involving students in their learning (Dearing, 1993; DES 1988), my experience resonates with the impact reported as far back as 1958 by Skinner (cited in Mitchell & Pearson, 2012) as ‘negative on behaviour’ (pp. 66-7) and ‘a fast track to lowering students’ self esteem and confidence’, according to The Assessment Reform Group (ARG) (1999 pp. 4-5).
Peer review activity
The four-part activity was introduced in the early stages of the first session of a new academic year. We comprised eight students divided into three groups. Extracts of the previous end of year assignment with associated feedback were issued for us to review to ‘lead students forward’ (Stephenson, 2001, p. 109).
Confidentiality faux pas
The activity was introduced with the assurance of anonymity. Each artefact represented some of us but not all. Each group shared their evaluations of our work and associated feedback. Every part of the task included aspects of my work which could be attributed to me as the content was unusual, therefore identifiable having been referred to in previous sessions.
I reacted with feelings of demoralisation and inadequacy from public exposure, compounded at each stage of the task. I recognised those described by Leitch (2006) ‘of humiliation and shame…losing face’ (p. 2) and although under different circumstances, the impact on emotions and behaviour, similar. Despite battling with negative emotions, I reflected upon the underlying reasons for these feelings, turn negative into positive energies and focus on the remainder of the day’s sessions, mindful of the possible impact on my peers and teacher.
In hindsight, instead of being prepared for embracing the role of ‘critical friend’ (Murray 2011, p. 163) I was enduring Hartley’s ‘grim reader’ (in Murray 2011, p. 187).
Considerations for preparation
There appears to be a strong argument for better preparedness not only for those receiving feedback but those feeding back. ‘The simplest forms of learning depend on attention, practice and feedback’ (Entwistle, 2009; p. 23), although Ofsted reports (2011), appear to indicate otherwise. My account proposes teachers consider:
1) different starting points which students bring to a task such as confidence, personality, prior experience of similar tasks, expectations.
2) Equity, for example, equal representation of student work.
3) Potential impact on student performance and behaviour.
4) Time for reflection (Thorpe, 2000).
For my proposed criteria to benefit everyone all parties should be involved at all stages, from preparation to execution (Bradbury et al., 2010) as a collaborative and reflexive process (Drake & Heath, 2008). Discussions are essential with teachers and peers for readiness to engage and to understand the feedback (Handley, Price and Millar n.d cited in Millar et al., 2010 p. 2). The social context also influences the degree to whether or not students engage (Thompson & Thompson, 2008).
Conclusion and recommendations
Whilst this account is within a higher education setting, the experiences reported are by no means exclusive to the world of higher education. Experience from 20 years in further education and school settings reminds me that student engagement in feedback is a more positive experience in junior and primary settings and less so in secondary and beyond. Studies of how children participate and respond to similar peer feedback activities are worthwhile and whether adults are more likely than children to resist a more open approach to feedback, preferring a private encounter between themselves and the teacher.
Negative outcomes do not imply there is little value in giving or sharing feedback; numerous accounts extol the virtues of providing feedback (Kluger & DeNisi, 1996 cited in Black et al., 2003). Sensitivity is paramount when sharing student work and associated feedback especially where the assignments belong to the students, as there is no guarantee of anonymity. Crucial is the extent of preparation, who is involved, at what stages and in accordance to prior experiences of similar activities (Coffin et al., 2010).
Although this paper argues that preparation is fundamental, preparation alone may not guarantee students willingly embrace the experience as wholly positive, one which is all embracing and supportive (Williams & Wegerif, 2006).
Advocates of the value of formal feedback are students themselves (Hayes et al., 2007). In particular they value honesty (Skinner, cited in Mitchell and Pearson, 2012) justification for good as well as poorer performance, above praise alone. Perhaps ‘assessment for learning’ should be practised as ‘assessment as learning’ (Earl, 2003 cited in Volante and Cherubini 2007, p. 3).
One final note, the process of writing this article has therapeutically enabled me to manage my ‘grief’ (Greer, 1991 cited in Murray 2011, p. 195).
Assessment Reform Group (1999) Assessment for Learning: Beyond the Black Box. Cambridge, UK: University of Cambridge School of Education
Black, P. J. and Wiliam, D. (1998) Inside the Black Box: Raising Standards Through Classroom Assessment. London: Kings College London, School of Education.
Black, P., Harrison, C., Lee, C., Marshall, B. and Wiliam, D. (2003) Assessment for Learning: Putting it into Practice. Maidenhead: Open University Press.
Bradbury, H., Frost, N., Kilminster, S. and Zukas, M. (2010) Beyond Reflective Practice: New Approaches To Professional Lifelong Learning. Milton Keynes: Routledge.
Campbell, P. (2007) (ed.) Measures of Success Assessment and Accountability in Adult Basic Education. Edmonton, Alberta: Grass Roots Press.
Coffin, G., Lillis, T., O’Halloran, K. (eds) (2010) Applied Linguistics Methods, A. Reader: Systemic Functional Linguistics, Critical Discourse Analysis and Ethnography. London: Routledge.
Dearing, R. (1993) The National Curriculum and its Assessment London and York: School Examination and Assessment Council and National Curriculum Council.
DES (1988) 1988 Education Reform Act. London: HMSO.
Drake, P. and Heath, L. (2008) Insider research in schools and universities. The case of the professional doctorate. In Sykes, P. and Potts, A. (eds) Researching education from the inside. London: Routledge
Entwistle, N. (2009) Universities into the 21st Century: Teaching for Understanding at University – Deep Approaches and Distinctive Ways of Thinking. UK: Palgrave MacMillan.
Hayes, D., Marshall, T. and Turner, A. (2007) (eds) A Lecturer’s Guide to Further Education. Maidenhead, UK: Open University Press
Leitch, R. (2006) Outside the Spoon Drawer, Naked and Skinless in Search of My Professional Esteem. The Tale of an ‘Academic Pro‘: Qualitative Inquiry, 12 (2) pp. 1-12.
Lillis, G. (2002) Delivering Results in Qualitative Market Research. London: Sage
McNiff, J. and Whitehead, J. (2010) (3rd edition) You and Your Action Research. London: Routledge
Millar, J., Davis, S., Rollin, H. and Spiro, J. (2010) Engaging Feedback, Brookes eJournal of Learning and Teaching, 2(5). Retrieved on 3 October 2012 from bejlt.brookes.ac.uk
Mitchell, N. and Pearson, J. (2012) Inquiring in the Classroom. Asking the questions that matter about teaching and learning. London: Continuum
Murray, R. (2011) (2nd edn) Writing for Academic Journals Maidenhead, UK: Open University Press.