As online educators, we strive for a balance of learning activities that incorporate three types of engagement: learner-to-content, learner-to-instructor, and learner-to-learner. The learner-to-learner component is often filled through discussion boards or group projects, but an underutilized and undervalued option is peer review.
There are many ways peer review benefits students, among them Cornell University Center for Teaching Innovation lists:
- Empower students to take responsibility for and manage their own learning.
- Enable students to learn to assess and give others constructive feedback to develop lifelong assessment skills.
- Enhance students’ learning through knowledge diffusion and exchange of ideas.
- Motivate students to engage with course material more deeply.
More broadly, the authors of The Knowledge Illusion argue that our individual capacity for knowledge is often much more limited than we realize and that our true depth of knowledge is held collectively. They remind us that, “when you put it all together, human thought is incredibly impressive. But it is a product of a community, not of any individual alone” (page 5). In our increasingly complex world, some evidence of a shift towards building knowledge collectively can be seen in research. For example, in the MEDLINE database, “the average number of authors per article has nearly quadrupled from about 1.5 in 1950 to 5.5 in 2014” (page 226). This is just one of many examples the authors use to illustrate how essential collaboration and relationship skills have become. In nearly every field, students need to be prepared to be more than individual achievers, but rather to contribute effectively to a group. Peer review provides students an opportunity to give and receive feedback with the goal of creating a better end product, but it is also an opportunity for students to practice and build their teamwork skills.
Moreover, International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) Standard 3b emphasizes the need for students to, “evaluate the accuracy, perspective, credibility and relevance of information, media, data or other resources.” Peer review is a great way for us to meet this standard and to combat against misinformation, by teaching students to evaluate and challenge claims. In Weaponized Lies: How to Think Critically in the Post-Truth Era author Daniel J. Levitin shares strategies for how we can think more critically and evaluate the trustworthiness of what we are being told. He notes that, “sometimes the people giving you the facts are hoping you’ll draw the wrong conclusion; sometimes they don’t know the difference themselves” (page xx). If your students are in either of these groups, it benefits them to have an attentive reader review their work and provide respectful suggestions for improvement prior to a final assignment submission. This may help you as the instructor to avoid catching errors too late in the process when students cannot revise their work.
However, students may not see the value of peer review on their own. The Teaching Center at Washington University in St. Louis describes many reasons students may express uncertainty around peer review as, “Many students do not perceive feedback from peers as relevant to the process… students are likely to assume that it is only the instructor’s feedback that ‘counts.’” Therefore, it is important that we explain to students why we are asking them to engage in peer review explicitly.
It can be helpful to explain specifically how this will relate to industry or field of study requirements as a student advances as a professional and scholar – it looks different for a researcher than it does for a project manager, so motivate students by sharing with them how they will engage in similar activities in the future as this gives them an opportunity to practice what Starting Point: Teaching Entry Level Geoscience describes as, “key skills such as abstracting, developing arguments, describing, assessing, criticizing, analyzing, and reviewing.” As Faculty Focus advises, we can’t assume that students will implicitly understand the purpose of peer review. When we craft a peer review assignment, we need to think carefully about how we will articulate the benefits of the process to students. It can be helpful to answer questions like, “Why am I having students do this?” and “Why should students be excited about this process?” Or, to take it a step further, we can anticipate the questions from our students’ perspective and proactively address the purpose and logistics in the assignment description, by answering questions like, “Why am I doing peer review?” and “How am I supposed to review my peer’s work?” Make sure the technology needed and processes are clear and that resources are provided for students that need more guidance.
Remember, knowing why students are peer reviewing and being able to peer review are two totally different skills. If you are an Ecampus instructor, talk with your instructional designer about strategies that can help your peer review process be more successful. Some of the best practices suggested by Center for Instructional Technology & Training at the University of Florida include:
- Clarify expectations in advance
- Check your students have all the tools they will need
- Provide enough time in the peer review process so that students can meaningfully engage – this may span more than one module
- Model the type of feedback you want your students to use
- Create a quality rubric as a guide
Your instructional designer can also talk to you about digital tools or strategies that can be used to introduce students to peer review. For example, you can discuss whether it makes more sense to use Canvas Peer Review or another tool, like Peerceptiv, which is research-validated peer assessment technology available for Ecampus courses.
Remember, students need opportunities to practice peer review, as they may never have done it before. That means they have to get familiar with both the tools and the process. It’s best if they can practice with the technology on a low stakes assignment before using it for a high stakes assignment, so that they can familiarize themselves with a peer review process without the added anxiety of a major grade on the line. It will also take time for you as the instructor to get familiar with the process, but it is a completely worthwhile investment!
I invite you to consider some concluding thoughts from Levitin, “Information gathering and research that used to take anywhere from hours to weeks now takes just seconds… The implicit bargain that we all need to make explicit is that we will use just some of that time we saved in information acquisition to perform proper information verification” (page 253). Let’s reinvest some of the time our students saved researching to engage them in verifying claims, evaluating evidence, offering commentary, and incorporating feedback – all of which support the development of a stronger student work and the building of a collective knowledge.