Peer assessment in high enrollment courses

In a recent blog post by Dr. Mary Ellen Weimer, “Peer Assessment is Not an Elixir for All Group Work Challenges,” the strategy of using peer assessment in group work was questioned.  Dr. Weimer points out a startling hypothesis from an article that resulted from a meta-analysis of group learning activities in 32 studies published between 1974 and 2011 in Teaching of Psychology.  The authors Tomcho and Foeis (see citation below) posited that the results from the studies across all these decades of empirical research out of higher ed psychology classrooms suggest that peer assessment may have actually hindered the faculty’s desired learning outcomes for their students.  Instead, from the data they examined, it seemed that group members are more concerned about how their peers will evaluate them rather than learning the material. 

Weimer expands on this by reminding us in the higher ed teaching profession that “our primary motivation for using peer assessment shouldn’t be as a mechanism for dealing with students who aren’t contributing as they should.” She encourages her readers to use peer review as a modeling process for teaching the principles of constructive feedback – and that this is a lifelong skill we should all work to maintain as professionals in any career, but especially in academe. Weimer challenges us to explore the use of peer assessment and find out if the way we use it in our classrooms contributes positively to overall group functioning and encourages individuals to accept their responsibilities… [To use] approaches to peer assessment that do promote, not compromise, the learning experiences of group members.”

As a professor in the Statistics Department here at UK, I just try to approach all of these things with the same academic spirit I approached my research for 25 years: with detachment.  I am motivated by much passion and a strong rational understanding of “need” but I am not, as my young kids like to say “so in love with this that I want to marry it” followed by giggles.  Fact is, with almost all universities faced with a butts-in-seats accounting system and even reward system, we are not going to be able to always do what’s best in the abstract sense, but may have to do what is best in a practical sense. 

In Statistics we can’t do staged review and resubmit for 72 sections of STA 210 for 3-5 mini projects per student per semester.   For us, the Calibrated Peer Review (“CPR,” a freely shared software product from the University of California System) is better than what we do now.  Currently, the grading of student work is more a Herculean approach by the instructor to get all the projects graded and returned with comments, comments that are rarely (never?) read.  Plus, I have to worry about keeping my personnel sane and in place.  They won’t stay if the job is equivalent to torture without reward.   Heck, if you are ok with torture you might as well work for a pharmaceutical (if you are a statistician) where the (monetary) rewards are great. 

So I have to be  ready to experiment and innovate, as well as be a manager of people, and a teacher and content expert all at once, and all those jobs influence my actions.   I’m not at all sure peer review is going to be what we really need.  I am sure it is better than what I’m currently doing, though I may end up convinced that my “by hand” peer reviewing that I did to transition students to CPR is just as effective and far less trouble for the students.   At some point I’ll have to make that call for STA but I don’t want to make it too soon, or only because the idea of it rankles some authors.  I’m a very empirical guy.  I want to experience it and then decide.

Besides, in the words of that renowned 21st Century philosopher Taylor Swift:  “People throw rocks at things that shine ….”    From the mouths of babes.    I just duck and go on.  Eventually I may throw a few rocks at peer review myself, but not this soon.

Dr. William S. Rayens, Professor
Statistics Department, College of Arts & Sciences


Tomcho, T.J. and Foeis, R. (2012). Meta-analysis of group learning activities: Empirically based teaching recommendations. Teaching of Psychology, 39(3), 159-169.

Weimer, M. (2012). Peer Assessment is Not an Elixir for All Group Work Challenges. Teaching Professor Blog. Accessed October 10, 2012.