One frequently asked question concerns whether students are actually capable of giving each other high-quality feedback or assessment, given that they are still working to assimilate the content themselves. Furthermore, isn’t the teacher always the expert? A search of existing studies on peer assessment reveals that several factors are crucial to arriving at the most reliable results possible with peer assessment. We discuss these factors briefly in this tip.

First, in the interest of clarity: we understand peer assessment to include students giving each feedback, as well as students assessing each other. The factors that we discuss in this tip thus also concern the interim use of peer assessment for feedback (formative), and not only for points at the end (summative). We thus occasionally refer to peer feedback and peer evaluation.

The following factors increase the reliability of peer assessment:

Teach students to assess

Increasing criticism has emerged recently that students are not adequately taught to give high-quality feedback or constructive evaluation: ‘The assessment competence is actually still a neglected topic’ (Sluijsmans D., expert testing). The step from learning to assessment is often skipped, and students are simply expected to be able to do this.

‘The first assumption is that conducting a self or peer assessment is a complex skill which involves more than giving scores to peers. Before they are put into the role of assessor, students must understand which skills are involved in judging of themselves or a peer. Students need explicit training in assessment techniques to make reliable and acceptable assessment reports’ (Sluijsmans et al., 2003, p. 24).

Students must thus learn to assess. We provide two examples:

  • For written products (e.g. papers or reports), students can learn to give feedback based on the following or a similar pattern: detection, diagnosis, remedy (Hayes et al. 1987), meaning that students give feedback by (1) first detecting the problem in the text, (2) then establishing a diagnosis of the problem (3) and subsequently proposing a solution.
    Not: ‘Your text is not structured properly’.
    But: ‘The structure of the text has room for improvement’ (detection); ‘the structure plays a decisive role in bringing out the argumentation in a strong way’ (diagnosis); ‘specifically, you can do this by addressing the structure as follows … and restructuring the subsequent sections as follows … ’ (remedy).
  • If peer assessment is used for group work, group processes can be specified. This can be done through sessions or workshops focusing on such topics as: How do I act as a student in a group? How does this come over to others? What are my strengths, and what are some possible problems that can occur when I am working in a team? If peer assessment is used during the learning process as well (formative) and not restricted to being used at the end and immediately associating it with points (summative), students gain more insight into such team processes as free-riding, decibel marking (students who are popular or who have strong personalities receive the most points), friend-enemy politics. Experience has shown that the interim use of peer assessment can also have a preventive effect, in the sense that it opens such processes to discussion and remediation amongst students.

Familiarising students with the criteria

The principle is simple: by giving feedback to others, students become more familiar with criteria or expectations. This makes the peer assessment more focused and enhances its reliability. For example, in the context of giving substantive feedback, this can mean that students become more familiar with the conditions of a high-quality press statement, while also learning to translate it to their own press statement. The use of clear criteria that are explained in a transparent manner from the start is a basic condition in this regard.

Students assess each other in complement to the teacher (or teachers)

Teacher and student assessments can also supplement each other. In some cases, teachers do not have an overview of certain processes that students are able to observe. For example, if peer assessment is used for group work, the teacher has little if any insight into the group process and the contributions of the various students. In this case, students might be able to arrive at a more reliable assessment. Moreover, if multiple students assess each other’s work, the corrected average has been shown to be quite close to the points assigned by the teacher.

Want to know more?

Dochy, F., Segers, M., & Sluijsmans, D. (1999). The use of self-, peer-, and co-assessment in higher education: A review. Studies in Higher Education, 24(3), 331-350.

Gielen, S. (2007). Peer assessment as a tool for learning. Doctoral thesis. Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences.

Gielen, S., Peeters, E., Dochy, F., Onghena, P., & Struyven, K. (2010). Improving the effectiveness of peer feedback for learning. Learning and Instruction, 20(4), 304-315.

Hayes, J.R., Flower, L.S., Schriver, K.A., Stratman, J., & Carey, L. (1987). Cognitive processes in revision. In S. Rosenberg (Ed.), Advances in psycholinguistics: Reading, writing, and language processing (Vol. 2, pp. 176-240). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sluijsmans, D. (2002). Student involvement in assessment: The training of peer-assessment skills. Proefschrift Open Universiteit Heerlen.

Topping, K. J. (2009). Peer Assessment. Theory Into Practice, 48(1), 20-27. 

van Zundert, M., Sluijsmans, D., & van Merriënboer, J. (2010). Effective peer assessment processes: Research findings and future directions. Learning and Instruction, 20(4), 270-279.