Teaching and Learning Forum 99 [ Contents ]

A dilemma within peer group assessment

Cherry Barlowe
School of Design
Curtin University of Technology
How can I generate a peer group assessment and feedback sessions that guarantees full group participation where I don't feel as though I am treating them as children?

University mission statements and directives point to a preference for student outcomes where students can demonstrate being self critical, creative, lifelong learners.

Initiating strategies for large groups of students; for instance, with peer group assessment and feedback as a method for students to develop the skill of being reflective and critical about their work and their peers, has proved difficult because students chat among themselves or group up in friendly mutual benefit assessment sessions. In response to student requests this lecturer has designed and introduced forms that focuses student attention on fulfilling the assessment and feedback task. This strategy works in getting the students to stay on task. But - No forms; no attention. Furthermore, the lecturer is unhappy with this form of intervention as it does not align with supporting and encouraging self directed learners.

This paper is based on an inquiry into a dilemma where the lecturer's expectations of student participation does not align with stated student needs and requests. The paper and presentation will present the dilemma as a series of questions with the intention of stimulating discussion and ideally throwing new light on the issues for the writer and other educators.


Graphic Design has traditionally been taught in the problem solving, project based, master and apprentice mode of delivery. The changing face of University life, for example budget cuts and university directives for self critical, creative, life long learners, has meant that lecturers in Graphic Design and other professional courses have had to re-think teaching and learning methodology, including modes of delivery.

The yearly increase in student numbers to the School has meant student lecturer ratios have increased from one to fifteen to an average of one to twenty (final year Specialism students) over a six year period. Furthermore, not only have the numbers increased but the time allocated to teach the students has decreased. In 1998 this lecturer was confronted with the task of teaching 42 students in half the time allocated in the previous year. Clearly, even the most recently explored and implemented modes of delivery were not going to work. The solution was to design a session which relied on student participation/interaction (by default) to get the job done. Consequently, the lecturer decided to deliver common information via a lecture and have individual student feedback occur within show and tell, group work sessions. Hence, group work became the environment to ensure students received individual attention through peer feedback and peer assessment during the process of the project.

Setting the scene

On the first day of the semester the lecturer introduced the new session formatting and included an open discussion on the importance of group work, student participation in group work and the value of peer assessment and peer feedback. It was established that each week the class would form small groups of five, they would present their 'work in progress' to the group, who would in turn work together to contribute to the presenters work. While the students were engaged in the procedure the lecturer would walk around the room making herself available. The introduction was concluded by the group openly supporting the format and setting the ground rule to participate fully in peer feedback sessions. The lecturer felt confident that with the established support of the students that the new mode of delivery would be a simple and effective way to ensure all students receive the necessary feedback on their 'work in progress'.

Moreover, as the weeks passed the lecturer observed and noted the pattern of activity within the tutorial session. There was the general hum of discussion, some groups were very engaged in the process, others completed the task quickly while one out of the eight groups were evidently not engaged. The lecturer, in the role of a facilitator did encourage participation but did not take the position of enforcing it. Policing and enforcing participation did not align with her commitment and support of student driven learning, In other words she believed the students were mature enough to make their own choices to what level they were prepared to participate.

Lecturer encouragement took the form of entering and speaking with the group. For example; if a group finished early, the lecturer would inquire into the outcomes of the individual assessment and feedback, sometimes the lecturer intervention would spur further discussion within the group, while other times it was evident that the group was complete with the discussion. With regard to a group that was not engaged, the lecturer would remind them of the ground rule to participate fully in group work and ask why they were resisting participation, often the answer was because they had not completed the work, therefore there was nothing to feedback on. The lecturer was happy with the balance between student participation/interaction and lecturer facilitation/intervention.

The students first request

Three weeks into the semester a group of students approached the lecturer and confided that although they were participating in the feedback session they knew that other groups were not, resulting in them feeling resentful and therefore prone to giving superficial feedback and turning the session into a social interaction. The discussion lead to the request of lecturer intervention, with the intention of focusing the group work and enforcing full participation. Subsequent to the request the lecturer spoke to the group at large and asked them if they wanted such intervention, the majority agreed that structured group work would focus them and encourage a deeper level of participation.

The first dilemma

The lecturer was taken aback by the request and realised that the request to intervene and structure group work conflicted with her expectation of student interaction and commitment. This was a group of final year Specialism students, the lecturer had an expectation that they would be mature and interested enough to participate in peer feedback. Therefore, against the lecturer's view point she devised a series of peer feedback focus sheets, a check list of the processes the student should have achieved over the week. The focus sheets were a great success in that they focused the student to the task at hand but were they in alignment with university directives of students demonstrating self critical, self directed, creative, life long learners?

The students second request

Armed with focus sheets the lecturer proceeded to run the peer feedback and peer assessment tutorials, however, to the lecturers alarm the students came forward again to declare that when they were left to choose their own groups they would choose friends and felt that they could not give a true assessment due to the fear of hurting their friends feelings. Furthermore they were still prone to work through the sheets rapidly so they could then turn the event into a social encounter. The second request was for the lecture to pre-establish the groups ensuring friends were separated and also could the lecturer somehow encourage longer and therefore deeper feedback sessions.

In response to the request the lecturer pre determined the groups, once the session had begun the lecturer would time each activity ensuring enough time was allocated for each item stated on the focus sheet. The outcome was very positive the students participated enthusiastically in the activities and assessed their peers freely as they did not feel the same obligation to assess acquaintances (as opposed to friends) as highly.

The second dilemma

To summarise, the lecturer, against her beliefs towards student driven learning, devised feedback focus sheets, pre organised groups and timed each activity.

Yes, the process was a great success, but for the lecturer it did not align with her expectations of student independence and self directed learning. In fact the lecturer felt she was treating the students as a group of school children, dictating the activities and policing the outcomes. The dilemma spurred a series of questions for the lecturer, these questions will be the focus of discussion for the presentation

The questions

Every way the lecturer looked at the situation there was a dilemma attached.


  1. Ramsden, Paul (1992). Learning to Teach in Higher Education. Routledge, London.

  2. Laurillard, Diana (1993). Rethinking University Teaching: A Framework for Effective Use of Educational Technology. Routledge, London.

  3. Zuber-Skerritt, Ortrun (1996). Action Research In Higher Education. Kogan Page, London.

  4. Wilson, Brent. G (Ed) (1996). Constructivist Learning Environment: Case Studies in Instructional Design. Educational Technology Publications, New Jersey, USA.
Please cite as: Barlowe, C. (1999). A dilemma within peer group assessment. In K. Martin, N. Stanley and N. Davison (Eds), Teaching in the Disciplines/ Learning in Context, 24-27. Proceedings of the 8th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1999. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1999/barlowe.html

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