By the students, for the students: Harnessing the power of peer feedback

Priyanka Pereira (University of Twente) & Marijke Veugen (Wageningen University & Research)

Suzan stares blankly at the report she just received from her peer. “Where to begin?”, she thinks. “Maybe I should start by focusing on the coherence between the paragraphs? Or should I look at the use of tenses in the sentences? No, probably I should check if the paper’s aim is clearly defined”. After a while, she writes down: ‘Nicely done! The aim of your paper is very clear’.

Peer feedback is an instructional strategy that involves students giving and receiving feedback to and from each other. With peer feedback students compare their own work with the work of their peers, making them aware of what a well-done task looks like and allowing them to improve their own work (Jaime et al., 2016). When used effectively, peer feedback is beneficial to many aspects of student learning. A number of studies have shown that peer feedback improves students’ self-efficacy, academic achievement, learning autonomy, learning motivation and attitude (e.g., Brindley & Scoffield, 1998; Jaime et al., 2016).

However, without knowing what to look for when providing peer feedback, many students will experience problems similar to Suzan’s problem. Using peer feedback is frequently seen as something complicated, and it is, therefore, often avoided by teachers and students (Hawe & Parr, 2014). In this blog, we argue that by embedding peer feedback in formative assessment practice, you could minimise the potential problems and optimise the peer feedback process. Formative assessment includes gathering and analysing information of learning to communicate about these analyses in the form of feedback to take the next step in learning (Wiliam & Leahy, 2015). Teachers could implement formative assessment practice by applying the five phases of the formative assessment cycle with their students, as shown in Figure 1 (Gulikers & Baartman, 2017; see also toolkit Formatief toetsen). We’ll demonstrate how you could use these five phases of the formative assessment cycle with your students to tackle the potential problems with peer feedback.

Figure 1. The formative assessment cycle and its five phases (Gulikers & Baartman, 2017)

Potential problems with peer feedback and the use of formative assessment to solve them

Problem 1. “I think students may believe that only I, as their teacher, can provide good feedback.”
Solution: Developing ‘a nose for quality’ with your students
In phase 1 of the formative assessment process, you discuss the learning goals and success criteria of the task with your students. By discussing what makes a task of good quality, you and your students together formulate the success criteria. The use of examples of tasks made by (former) students could help to create this ‘nose for quality’ and allow your students to provide feedback in the same language and at the same level as your feedback (Trimbos, 2020).

Problem 2. “I worry that the reliability and validity of peer feedback, as compared to my feedback, may be low.”
Solution: Dispelling your concern of reliability and validity
In phase 2 of the formative assessment process, you gather the student work and hand out the work to their peers, and in phase 3, the students analyse their peers’ work. When you and your students have formulated the success criteria together and students have developed a nose for quality, your students will more reliably analyse and evaluate each other’s work. By using the success criteria as an evaluating framework, your students know what to look for and how to evaluate the work of their peers, which will lessen reliability and validity issues.

Problem 3. “I suspect students may be biased towards their friends.”
Solution: Double-blinding your students’ peer feedback
In phase 3, when your students analyse their peers’ work and formulate their feedback, and in phase 4, when they communicate their feedback, a number of intrapersonal and interpersonal factors can play a role that make students biased when providing feedback (Aben et al., 2019). To reduce the influence of the interpersonal factors, you can anonymise your students’ work, thus double-blinding the analysis process. If students do not know whose work they are reviewing or who is reviewing their work, their bias can be minimised.

Problem 4. “I fear that the peer feedback process may create a competitive environment, with feedback providers trying to show off, feedback receivers trying to save face and both thinking that other students might copy their work.”
Solution: Stimulating a feedback culture among your students
In phase 4, when the students actually provide and receive the feedback, they need to understand that it is completely acceptable to make errors as errors are an important part of the learning process (Bjork & Bjork, 2019). In addition to using the framework of success criteria to analyse the work of peers, your students also need to discuss with you and each other how to formulate feedback before they provide qualitative feedback. In other words, a feedback dialogue is necessary to develop feedback literacy. Modelling feedback could be an effective way for you to show your students how feedback could be provided. In this way, providing feedback becomes a learning process in itself, which will make your students aware that they and their peers are also learners and will stimulate a feedback culture.

Problem 5. “I feel that the peer feedback process will increase the amount of time and effort I will have to invest.”
Solution: Changing your role from feedback provider to facilitator
While the initial setup of the peer feedback activity may involve an extra time commitment from you the first time, this investment of time will pay off when your students become high qualitative assessors themselves. By initiating the former steps (phase 1 – 4), your students will improve their feedback skills and you will be less prominent in providing (individual) feedback to students. Your role will shift from a feedback provider towards a feedback facilitator, who not only monitors the peer feedback that was given and the steps your students took to improve their work, but also decides if it is necessary to adjust anything in this process to improve your students’ learning (phase 5).

Problem 6. “I doubt that I will know how, or that I will find it easy, to arrange peer feedback.”
Solution: Training yourself in the use of formative assessment and peer feedback
To increase your competence in applying peer feedback processes in your lessons, training yourself in peer feedback implementation, for example, how to use peer feedback systems and how to group students for peer feedback, could improve the ease with which you implement peer feedback in your classroom. Also, implementing formative assessment and peer feedback takes time and effort. Including colleagues and asking for support at school are vital to succeed the implementation of these practices (Wiliam & Leahy, 2015).

Best of both worlds
In conclusion, this blog shows that the potential problems of peer feedback can be solved by embedding peer feedback in the five phases of the formative assessment process. By doing so, peer feedback becomes more goal-oriented, with a clear framework of success criteria, that helps your students to analyse each other’s work and to construct clearer feedback. The peer feedback quality can be enhanced when you use strategies such as discussing, modelling and monitoring of the peer feedback (Hawe & Parr, 2014). In other words, combining peer feedback with formative assessment results in ‘the best of both worlds’ to improve student learning.

“Ah, now I know!” Suzan reminds herself that she had a list of criteria that she formulated with her peers in class. “Yes, I see this criterion states that I should not only check whether the aim of the paper is clear, but also explain why it is clear to me. Of course! Tom also mentioned this when we were discussing how to formulate feedback during class. So, I should describe precisely what I mean by ‘very clear’”.

Further reading
Aben, J. E. J., Dingyloudi, F., Timmermans, A. C., & Strijbos, J. W. (2019). Embracing errors for learning: Intrapersonal and interpersonal factors in feedback provision and processing in dyadic interactions. In M. Henderson, R. Ajjawi, D. Boud & E. Molloy (Eds.), The impact of feedback in higher education: Improving assessment outcomes for learners (pp. 107-125). Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan.

Bjork, R. A. & Bjork, E. L. (2019). Forgetting as the friend of learning: implications for teaching and self-regulated learning. Advanced Physiological Education, 43, 164-167.

Brindley, C., & Scoffield, S. (1998). Peer assessment in undergraduate programmes. Teaching in Higher Education, 3(1), 79-89.

Gulikers, J. T. M., & Baartman, L. K. J. (2017). Doelgericht professionaliseren: formatieve toetspraktijken met effect! Wat DOET de docent in de klas? [Targetted professonial development: formative assessment practices with effect! What the teacher DOES in the classroom]. NRO review report number 405-15-722. the Netherlands: Wageningen University. Retrieved on 10 May, 2021 from: migrate/Inhoudelijke-eindrapport_NRO-PPO-405-15-722_DEF.pdf.

Hawe, E., & Parr, J. (2014). Assessment for learning in writing classroom: an incomplete realisation. The Curriculum Journal, 25(2), 210–237.

Jaime, A., Blanco, J. M., Domınguez, C., Sanchez, A., Heras, J., & Usandizaga, I. (2016). Spiral and project-based learning with peer assessment in a computer science project management course. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 25, 439-449.

Trimbos, B. (2020, October). Feedback is meer dan het overbrengen van informatie. Van twaalf tot achttien, retrieved from

Wiliam, D., & Leahy, S. (2015). Embedding formative assessment. Practical techniques for K- 12 classrooms. US: Learning Sciences International.

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