Feedback is powerful, as we emphasized in the first and second article of our Feedback series. However, there are several challenges or limitations that can hamper the effectiveness of feedback, including lack of time, low level of student motivation, and low satisfaction with feedback. That's why peer review - student to student feedback - has been advocated as a great solution to these challenges . The benefits of peer feedback are countless, from improving students’ knowledge of subject matter, quality of final work, connections with peers, and most importantly, their development of lifelong skills  .
At Cornell University, there has been a long-standing recognition of and need for effective peer feedback, which led to a year-long pilot of the approach, aided by learning technology. This pilot allowed the faculty to co-create a shared knowledge and understanding of the peer feedback process.
At the inspirED 2021 virtual conference, we were lucky to have Ksenia Ionova and Marina Tokman from the Center of Teaching Innovation at Cornell University to reflect on how the peer feedback process can foster the development of lifelong skills. Their presentation, which highlighted the experience of two faculty members in using peer feedback, revealed several eye-opening takeaways about peer feedback. In this article, we would like to share these key insights with you, which hopefully will help you harness the benefits of peer feedback.
We want to thank Ksenia and Marina for their keynote, which was the inspiration for this article. You can watch the full session here and pick up the valuable “nuggets" for yourself.
Ksenia and Marina’s presentation featured clips from two other instructors from Cornell University:
Dr. Brian Richards, Senior Research Associate from the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, Department of Biological & Environmental Engineering, Cornell University
Dr. Emilia Illana Mahiques, Lecturer of Spanish Language, Department. of Romance Studies College of Arts and Sciences, Cornell University
In the next sections, we will elaborate on Dr. Mahiques and Dr. Richards’ experience on implementing peer feedback.
Peer feedback is a cyclical and interactive process and involves the contribution of instructors, students, and teaching assistants (TAs). A complete peer feedback process can consist of the following steps:
Step 1: The instructors setting outcomes and expectations for the activity
Step 2: Giving feedback (students and TAs)
Step 3: Receiving feedback (students and TAs)
Step 4: Reflecting on the feedback
Step 5: Going beyond: Moving the skills learned beyond the classroom
Each of these steps has to be executed with care and attention to achieve the desired outcomes.
During the 1998 semester, Dr. Richards organized a course on Sustainable Development, which was asynchronous and accessible to all students from every faculty. The course was structured to cover feedback at different levels: student - student, TAs - student, TAs - TAs. This multilayer feedback format proved to be “groundbreaking" at that time, and the course received overwhelmingly positive reactions from the students, as they said it was “one of the best courses ever taken".
Reflecting on the course, Dr. Richards noted that a key decisive element is setting clear outcomes and expectations.
“What worked well was that our feedback expectations were structured into the course. It is not an add-on, it is an integral part of the assignment.”
Both students and the TAs were well-informed of what kind of feedback needed to be delivered, and received careful instructions on how to deliver positive, effective, and actionable feedback.
When it comes to students giving peer feedback, Dr. Mahiques emphasized:
“Peer review without training doesn’t work.”
In a survey asking students at Cornell how they feel about peer review, 7% of the students reported that it was unhelpful due to the low quality and superficiality of the feedback provided . Therefore, it is vital that students are trained and guided along the feedback process so that they understand how to produce effective feedback.
An important part of the peer feedback training is letting students know what quality feedback is? Quality feedback, according to Ksenia, should be about self-awareness, positivity, specificity and honesty.
First of all, we need to be self-aware when giving feedback. It is a tendency for us to give comments according to profile or personality, which would affect the objectivity of the feedback. That’s why instructors need to help students navigate the feedback and get out of the profiles that they tend to adopt.
Feedback can be, and should be positive. It is often criticized in research that feedback targeting the process, performance and self-reflection are more effective than personal appraisal or compliments. However, Dr. Mahiques voiced the opposite: “People tend to say that positive feedback doesn’t work, that’s not true.”
Positive feedback can have positive effects if it is accompanied by detailed reasoning and elaboration. “When you point out to the students “why do I like this?” and especially if you justify “I like this because …”, students are able to incorporate this feedback again into their learning”, Dr. Mahiques explained.
Simply saying “It is good” or “Great job” doesn’t do much, but when saying “It’s good because...”, explaining to their peers why, the comment becomes much more helpful. These reasoned, positive comments will leave a lasting impression on the students, thus motivating them to repeat this in their future work. Furthermore, asking students to focus on what they like about their peers’ work allows them to learn from each other.
“As a feedback giver, you are able to learn from [positive comments] you gave to your peers.”
Be honest and specific about what you like and don’t like when giving feedback. The purpose of feedback is to provide information to help the receivers improve their final work. If this information is incorrect, learners won’t be able to realize their mistakes and make timely adjustments. In other words, there would be no opportunities for growth and development if the feedback is neither detailed nor honest.
“In my opinion, it is better to be honest when giving feedback. If it is a problem, point it out. If it is something good, point it out.”
Knowing how to receive and process feedback properly is as important as giving quality feedback. That is, instructors should train and help students to develop a growth mindset; ‘feedback literacy’, which entails appreciating the given feedback, making judgements, and managing emotional reaction to the feedback. Dr. Mahiques had this to say about developing a growth mindset:
“When you receive feedback, you should perceive it from a growth mindset. What is the comment trying to tell me? … You can learn even if the feedback is not good. Even when the feedback is not expressed in the best way, you can still learn from it.”
It is really important that students are open to all the feedback even though this feedback is not expressed in the best way. Only with this mindset can they actually learn and take their work to the next level.
For feedback to really take effect, students need to take action and incorporate the received feedback into their work.
In Dr. Richards’ Sustainable Development course, not only did students have to exchange feedback but they also had to use this feedback to improve their final product. To demonstrate the feedback adoption, students handed in their responses to 9 peer comments detailing if they made sense and how they were incorporated into the assignment. This step ensured the effect of the feedback till the end of the course.
The effect of feedback shouldn’t stop once the course is over, it needs to be transferred into lifelong skills which students can rely on beyond the classrooms.
Upon completing the Sustainable Development course, both students and TAs acknowledged how they had developed into critical thinkers who:
Dr. Mahiques again brought up valuable remarks on the impact of peer review on life-long learning. Peer review practice helps students develop 1) critical thinking (by actively participating in their own learning; 2) collaboration (by connecting and interacting with their classmates); and 3) analytical thinking (by analysing and reflecting peers' work)
“Peer review is definitely a practice that brings students many skills to use both inside and outside the classroom.”
Peer feedback goes beyond a classroom activity or mere assignment: it is a pedagogical approach that enables fruitful learning experiences and the transfer of lifelong skills. So as an instructor, what are the goals, expectations, and activities you will establish to generate lifelong impact on your students? And what would you like this impact to be?
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