Is the value of peer assessment compromised if it is used as a class control for large classes? Charl Norloff, co-author of Q: Skills for Success Reading/Writing 4, discusses how to maximize the value of peer assessment.
The value of any technique, including peer assessment, lies in having a clear idea of the purpose for using it and having realistic expectations about the outcomes you seek. Here are some factors to consider.
Structure the peer work carefully so that:
Students are using the target language
Is the class monolingual? If so, then the peer work, especially if it is being used as a control, needs to be very carefully structured so students can easily do it. Otherwise, it can have the opposite effect, leading to students speaking together in their native language, often off topic, and can actually contribute to a lack of control.
So, provide clear directions for what language you expect the students to use, including structures and vocabulary required to successfully complete the task.
The task is easy enough for the students to do with minimal supervision
The level of the students is another consideration in how the peer work is structured. The peer activity has to be such that it encourages use of the target language – in this case, English. If the task is too difficult or too open-ended for the level of the students then, again, it can lead to a situation where there is poor control.
So, make sure the task is at the appropriate level for your students, and give and practice models – including vocabulary and structures – in advance of the activity so students have the language they need. Peer tasks are often best following instruction and whole group practice or assignments.
There is a time limit
Especially where control is one of the purposes of peer work, a clear time limit is also a must. Otherwise, students waste time and can easily end up off task.
So, decide on the appropriate amount of time to complete the task, subtract five minutes and announce and post the end time. You can always add a few more minutes back in if students are clearly on task and still need more time to finish.
There is an end task with clear measurable outcomes, which can be assessed
When students work in pairs or groups, to ensure that the intended work is done, an end activity which holds the students accountable is always practical. That may be where the assessment piece comes in.
If the desired result of the peer work is to be assessment, then there need to be clear and measurable outcomes attached to the peer work in order for it serve the dual purpose of control and assessment.
Again, provide clear instructions about either a written or an oral assignment that will be due (and assessed, if that’s appropriate) at the end of the peer work. Try to keep the end task one of creating or producing something – a dialogue or brief speech presented to the whole class if you’re working on speaking or a piece of writing or analysis of writing that will be collected if writing is your focus. Avoid asking students to evaluate the quality of their partner’s work. Avoid asking yes/no questions which don’t require the use of the language. Focus rather on producing language or identifying aspects of the language rather than judging the language.
Here’s an example:
I’ve assigned, and my students have written, a paragraph giving reasons why studying a foreign language is an important part of their education. Prior to the peer work, we have worked on writing a good paragraph and have read a model and identified the topic sentence, supporting ideas, and conclusion.
My task will be for students to exchange paragraphs with a partner, read the partner’s paragraph, discuss anything that isn’t understood, then complete a worksheet on the paragraph identifying the various types of sentences.
The desired learning outcome in this example is for the students to be able to identify the structure of a good paragraph.
I will give the students five to ten minutes to read their partner’s paragraph and discuss it. Then, they will have another five to ten minutes to do the worksheet. The worksheet might ask the students to 1) find the topic sentence, write it on the worksheet and underline the topic once and the controlling idea twice, 2) list the supporting reasons, 3) circle transitions words, and 4) state whether the paragraph had a concluding sentence, and if so, whether it restated the ideas in the topic sentence or not.
The final step (and end task) would be to share the answers on the worksheet with the partner. Worksheets could be collected and be part of the overall assessment of the writing. A follow up assignment would be for students to reread their own paragraphs, using the same worksheet to analyze the paragraph, and then to revise it as needed based on the worksheet.
In any activity in a language class, including peer assessment, having control of the class is a must. If peer work is done in a way that keeps a class under control, and clear realistic outcomes are expected and measurable, then the value of the work is never compromised.
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