When students grade each other (and other peer-assessment challenges)

I’m a big fan of group work in the classroom. Partly, this is because it takes a group to make a piece of theatre, and I teach theatre; partly this is because life is all about working in groups of people, and working in groups of people is astonishingly hard.

Just ask this person:

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Or, ask students (including my TA this year, Madison Bettle) if they like group work, and you usually get two kinds of responses:

“it’s ok/I’m fine with it” (translation: other people do the work, so it’s pretty great!/I love doing all the work, so it’s pretty great!),

and

“I find it difficult” (translation: I do all the work, and I really resent it).

So why do I persist? It’s simple: learning to be a better collaborator is as important to living and working in the world as is learning to breathe. It’s a pity more of us don’t place an emphasis on effective group skills in our teaching, because, man, oh man, do we all need it!

Over the years, I’ve approached the challenge of group dynamics in my theatre studies classrooms in a variety of ways. I’ve asked students to put on scene studies in groups, but not for grades; the students loved this work, but often resented not getting marks for it. (Understandable, if sad and depressing.) I’ve asked students to put on scene studies in groups for grades; the students loved this work, but found it incredibly annoying when a member (or more) of the group slacked off and got the grade anyway. (Friends: call it collateral damage and then call it a day.)

This year, I took a slightly more complicated approach: I asked students to put on scene studies in groups for grades, and then I asked them to contribute to their final marks by grading each other.

This is the story of how that turned out.

Last Thursday, the students in my 20th Century Drama class had just one job: to get into their performance groups, answer a series of questions, and come to a conclusion about what grade(s) the various members of the group deserved for their efforts this year. The student-generated grades (which I would respect, regardless of difficulties) would make up 5/15 marks for the performance component of the class; the performance component of the class would make up 15/100 marks for the class as a whole. (In other words: some pressure, but not a tonne of pressure.)

As Charlotte Bell explained in this space last autumn, students need clear tools to assist with peer grading. This is the task I set to help the students manage the challenge (and it is, of course, a challenge!) of grading themselves and one another:

GROUP FEEDBACK TEMPLATE

Part One:

On your own, please respond to the following questions, in writing. You have ten minutes.

  1. What were my greatest strengths as a group member this year? List up to THREE traits, and include details explaining each.
  2. What were my greatest weaknesses as a group member this year? List up to THREE traits, and include details explaining each.
  3. Where did my group excel this year? For example, when and how did we meet our own expectations? Summarize your feelings, and describe one or two key occasions where the group achieved what it set out to do.
  4. Where did my group fall short of its own expectations this year? Summarize, and describe one or two key occasions where you feel the group could have done better.
  5. What grade would I assign my group for our year’s efforts?
  6. What grade would I assign myself, as a group member?

Part Two:

In a pair WITHIN your group, please discuss your responses to Part One, and then respond to the following questions. Remember to be honest, respectful, supportive AND FAIR.

  1. Where did our group excel, and where did it fall short of expectations? Summarize your individual findings (take notes!), and then decide if, on balance,
    1. You excelled much more than you fell short
    2. You excelled a bit more than you fell short
    3. You sometimes excelled, but often also fell short
    4. You largely fell short.
  2. Based on your individual reflections, and also on your comments and choice above, what grade would you assign your group for this year? (Choose a number, based on the letter category that corresponded with your choice above.)
  3. Are there members of your group who went beyond the call of group work duty? If so, choose whether or not to assign them bonus marks.
  4. Are there members of your group who let the group down? If so, choose if and how to penalize them.

Part Three:

As a group, discuss your findings and share your tentative grades.

Negotiate: what final grades will you assign each group member? What comments will you include to support your grade choices?

Type your comments and grades. Note that the comments should be about a paragraph long (no more).

Send your comments and grades to Kim, via email.

When I created this template, I worked hard to take as many differing voices into account as possible, mindful that students would have (potentially) different impressions of how things had gone in their group. What I forgot, I realise now, is that having different impressions of how things have gone is very different from being able (or feeling able securely) to express how things have gone to a group member with whose opinion you might not fully agree. My template seeks to be academic in its objectivity – but, as teachers all know, objectivity is extremely difficult to achieve when assigning anyone, let alone one another, grades for our shared efforts.

The Thursday of our peer assessment exercise arrived, and we did – I thought! – pretty well. The students were lively and cheerful in their group chats in class; most of them emailed me happily with shared or individuated group grades shortly after. I annotated my class notes (this is my habit, to preserve some kind of institutional memory for future years), and called it a win.

But then, two things happened.

First, I was approached by a group that had run into trouble: one of their members had been perennially absent for meetings and prep, but had always arrived in time to claim the glory. In our peer assessment exercise they had manifested no remorse (or even awareness!), and the rest of the group had felt uncomfortable confronting them. Result? The group had agreed on a shared grade, but now deeply regretted it.

Second, I received what I thought was a truly heartening email from another group featuring a member often absent; by all accounts it sounded like that student had stepped up in peer assessment, owned their mistakes, and agreed on a lesser grade.

I was thrilled that for one failure another success had resulted. I also realized, at that point, that it would be helpful to get the students’ feedback on how the peer assessment exercise had gone, since I had two very different pieces of evidence to account for.

On our last day together, I posed the following question:

How did it go for you and your group? Reflect in writing for ONE minute; aim to indicate something of value, and also to make one suggestion for improvement.

Given the balance of evidence at hand, I expected a fair amount of positivity in the students’ responses. Instead, I got this (incredibly valuable! – But somewhat unexpected) feedback:

  • It was difficult to discuss group issues in a class setting – can we give people the option to find another space to talk?
  • It was difficult because most of our groups became close over the year: we were worried about upsetting the group dynamic;
  • Could we try anonymous grading? People don’t want to address people to their face if they feel others have not done their share;
  • Could you (Kim, the teacher) shield us from the harshest of comments but still express our concerns?
  • Could we try doing group work assessment at the half-point during the year?

Looking at this feedback now, as I write this post, I’m surprised at myself. How did I not realise the difficulties inherent in the peer grading template I’d designed? Of course I’d known it would be hard for students to confront group members who did not pull their weight; what I’d forgotten (hello!) was that I had rather a lot more experience in grading underperforming students than most students do – and thus that I really needed to provide some hard-core emotional and intellectual guidance to the students needing to do this work now.

How do you tell someone you’ve grown to like, and even to love, that they let you down in your shared work? How do you assign them a number?

One of the groups facing challenges chose to let sleeping dogs lie; the other, however, ended up revisiting their assessment and grades. I met with two representatives in my office today to talk through what had happened. One member, felt by the others not to have pulled their weight, had been assigned a lesser grade after the fact by the remaining members of the group; that member felt, correctly, that they had not been given the chance to speak or respond to accusations. The other member represented the majority feeling: that the first member was well liked and respected but had put in far less work, and thus deserved a lesser grade. [That member also explained that the others, who had spent a long time after class talking about how to account for this disparity, did not feel comfortable confronting their peer in class – whether wrongly or rightly, they felt sincerely that their peer would not be willing to fully hear and accept their critique, and they did not want to disrupt their group’s friendly dynamic by pushing the issue.]

Our meeting was fruitful but hard; I know both students worked to be respectful and not to get overly emotional about the stakes involved. (And here I have to say how much I respect the efforts of both in this regard!) I acted as a mediator for this meeting, and I learned two very important things from it.

First (duh!) that I needed to create a safer space for all of my students to share their group feedback. In our debrief of the peer assessment one student suggested we feed back anonymously; rather, I suspect, what needs to happen is that I, as instructor, need to a) create multiple moments of low-pressure feedback throughout the year, culminating in b) a meeting of the group with me in which we decide on shared or individuated grades. My role as mediator is crucial, and it cannot happen in the classroom; it needs to happen in my office, or in another semi-private space where students feel able to speak honestly and openly.

Second, that (hello again!) all group feedback is marked by social privilege, including gender privilege: this was absolutely the case in our meeting, and it brought home to me the lived significance of how these kinds of privilege impact student voices in the classroom, though few students realize it. The way we approach and respond to one another depends on how confident we have become in our own voices and perspectives, be they gendered, raced, or classed. In today’s meeting – which, I want to stress, happened between me and two very mature and thoughtful young adults – I was reminded of this research by Colin Latchem:

Although it is important to avoid gender stereotyping and acknowledge that there can be considerable variations within each gender and particular context, there is a considerable amount of research on psychological gender differences in communications. In general, men are held to construct and maintain an independent self-construal (Cross & Madson, 1997). As a consequence, men tend to be more independent and assertive, use language to establish and maintain status and dominate in relationships, and transmit information and offer advice in order to achieve tangible outcomes. By contrast, women tend to be more expressive, tentative, and polite in conversation, valuing cooperation and using dialogue in order to create and foster intimate bonds with others by talking about issues they communally face (Basow & Rubenfeld, 2003).

Today’s meeting reminded me that I cannot simply give students space to express their feelings about one another’s work; I need to make space in which those feelings can be safely and effectively expressed regardless of social privilege.

Next year, I plan to invite performance groups to feed back to each other informally a few times over the year, and I plan to take an active role in that feedback in order to help students to understand what they are saying to one another, and how they are saying it. At the end of it all we’ll have a chat, and I’ll be a part of it; I’ll try to mediate group challenges, but I’ll also make an effort to talk about how seemingly invisible power dynamics impact what is said between group members, and how.

Because group work isn’t just about students working in groups; it’s about students learning the very human skills of talking to each other across race, gender, class and other social and ethnic boundaries. They need our help to do this well – and we owe it to them, and to our larger world, to help them do it.

Kim

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2 thoughts on “When students grade each other (and other peer-assessment challenges)

  1. For what it’s worth, I was part of the ungraded in-class performance cohort, and I really appreciated it as an ungraded event. There were plenty of opportunities for graded assignments (ie: short scene analysis from other groups’ performances) and so having something that was kind of fun (and then really fun) that had very little pressure attached to it was great. The fact that it wasn’t graded really didn’t diminish the quality or effort my the groups. Those group work sessions were great, but it was also English and not performance studies.

  2. Thanks for this, Mel! It’s a helpful reminder that not all students in the ungraded version of the performance assignment resented not being graded. Increasingly over the years I’ve found that students crave grades (paging Lisa Simpson!), because we live in a sociopolitical space that insists objective measures are the only way to gauge human worth. But that’s wrong-headed, and every critique of neoliberalism knows it. If I want to walk my anti-neolib talk, perhaps I need to return to more ungraded assignments and explain why.

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