How can I make self and peer assessment work with my class?

In this ‘Ask the expert’, Research Manager in NFER’s Centre for Assessment and former teacher, David Simcock, answers some frequently asked questions on effective self and peer assessment.

When I try out self and peer assessment in class, it rarely works as I had hoped. Is that unusual?

It’s not unusual. Self and peer assessment are inherently challenging. There’s a reason why traditional teaching leaves assessment to the adults. Teachers have the subject knowledge and metacognitive skills to recognise faulty thinking and send learners in the right direction. Children find this much harder – that’s why they need teaching in the first place.

Teachers often find that when pupils evaluate their work, their comments are often vague, empty or tokenistic: “Use more good words.” “Make it more exciting.” “Use your calculator more.” Some pupils don’t want to be seen as being critical in any way.

All the same, it’s worth persevering. It’s not just that self and peer assessment help accelerate learning. The habit of reviewing one’s progress thoughtfully and critically is part of what it means to be a fully-formed lifelong learner, right into adulthood.

How can I make it work, then?

Be patient, and don’t expect pupils to pick it up immediately. As with any other skill, pupils need time to get to grips with self and peer assessment; it may take many iterations for the practice to become routine. Pupils are often slow to stop seeing the teacher as the only valid evaluator of their work.

Self and peer assessment is also something that you will have to teach explicitly. You could ask students to evaluate anonymised work from pupils they don’t know. This helps to remove the social dimension – pupils can practise without worrying about massaging the ego of their peer assessment partner. Try to ease your pupils into peer and self assessment: they should start out with quick, small-scale evaluations of their work, against simple and concrete success criteria.

Who should peer assess who in the classroom?

Generally speaking, it makes sense for pupils to do their peer assessment in pairs (or groups) of roughly similar ability. In pairs with big attainment gaps, the weaker student can often end up feeling disheartened. Abler students, meanwhile, might not receive useful feedback from pupils with a weaker grasp of the subject at hand. Personality matters too, of course, so it’s important to know your pupils: sworn enemies might not make ideal pairs – but then nor might bosom friends.

Written by David Simcock, Research Manager at NFER

David joined NFER’s Centre for Assessment in November 2015, after a several years of study and first-hand experience working in education. Following his graduation from the University of Oxford in 2012, David trained as a secondary English teacher, completing a PGCE two years later. He also has experience teaching English as an additional language in Spain and China. At NFER, David has worked on reading test development for the governments of England, Wales and Australia, as well as on NFER’s own suite of key stage 2 optional tests for reading, grammar and spelling. He is also working as part of the team developing the National Reference Tests for key stage 4.

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