Sunday, 18 October 2015

Uncomfortable peer assessment and the murder of ‘EBI‘

I have a big problem with ‘peer’ and ‘self’ assessment - I am not going to beat around the bush about this one. There have been several times in my teaching career where I have tried to justify the use of something to the point of insanity. There was or has been any evidence, in my classroom, of a particular teaching approach working. However, I could have put the batteries in the wrong way once during my attempts to make something work.  

Take, for example, verbal feedback stamps. The principle is fairly straightforward. I talk to the student in a lesson and stamp their book with a big, fat stamp, showing to other people that I have spoken to a student in a lesson – or teaching, as I like to call it.  Then the student can write down what I have said next to the stamp in their book. I, personally, felt it was an approach designed with the teacher in mind and not the student, because:

[1] It saved the teacher of not having to mark work in a book;

[2] It evidenced that there was some individual interaction between student and teacher;

[3] It helped show observers that the teacher had done something and not actually sat on their bottom all day, drinking coffee all day and, possibly, teaching students.

If we are honest, the verbal feedback stamp was a big old PR stunt between teachers and observers. It showed the observers that I did something in lessons. I am starting my new range of stamps available from most retailers. Choose from the following selection:

  • Teacher gave a look to indicate a student must work harder stamp
  • Teacher turned  my book the right way so I could read properly stamp
  • Teacher gave me a pen so I could write stamp
  • Teacher pointed at me when giving an instruction stamp
  • Teacher made me work on my own so I am not bothered stamp

As a PR stunt, it failed. Most people can see through it. But, like the Emperor’s new clothes, everybody felt the need to go along with it, because everyone else was using it. It also seemed the easy option at the time. However, it only takes one sensible child to see that the Emperor is walking around naked. Starkers. In the buff. Rudie dudie – that’s one my children use. Teaching is a complex things and you can’t evidence it with one stamp.     

Education has another outfit for the Emperor to wear, covering his nudity. In fact, he [or she] has been wearing for several years. And, it was only while performing a book scrutiny that I questioned the validity of peer and self assessments in lessons.

We get students to assess their work or another student's in lessons. The idea is behind this is the simple mantra: we become experts by teaching others. By making the students mark a piece of work, they are simply becoming a teacher and teaching other students what to do to get better. The hope is that students can then tell what they need to do to get better after telling another student what to do. Does it work?

The thing about peer and self assessment is that it is another form of feedback. It could replace marking or teacher feedback. Therefore, to an observer it looks like there are lots of examples of feedback and dialogue between teacher, student and class. It looks like there has been a lot of input and guidance. In fact, the teacher has looked at the book twice and then Tracey and Wayne has given helpful comments like ‘great effort’ and ‘check your spellings’.  

Peer [and self] assessment might be an effective teaching tool, but I have yet to use in an effective way and, boy, have I tried. I have given students specific things to check. I have used mark schemes. I have given students a bank of targets to choose from. I have given examples. I have modelled assessment too.

The only thing that works, in my opinion, in the ‘gallery’ approach. This is when students place their work in relation to several others. This seems to work because students can see how their work relates to others in the class. They can see what makes a good and a bad piece of work. The only other thing that works is when you give students a checklist of things to include.

Experts should mark work. I know quite a few teachers and heads of department who agree with that statement based on the exam results. Experts should be the ones marking work. Why? Well, they have the experience and they can pick up on subtle things. They can spot the patterns. They have familiarity with the whole spectrum of possible work / answers and they know what exactly improves something. They, oh, also know what the good stuff looks like.

Tom is an expert on FIFA. Tom is in Year 9. Tom comes to my lesson and I ask him to look at Cuthbert’s story. The expertise he has is based on the three weeks leading up to this lesson. He has read a few stories and now I am expecting him to mark like an expert. He will dutifully mark the work and base his ideas of what he has learnt from the past few lessons. I will then mark Cuthbert’s story and I will base my marking on:

  • The work I have marked in Years 7, 8 and 9;
  • The writing I have marked at GCSE;
  • The work I have moderated at KS3;
  • The teaching I know has been taught at KS2 and KS3;  
  • The primary examples I have read;
  • The training I have received;
  • The work he completed before this story;
  • The exam board examples I have read;
  • The novels I have read.

There is a big difference between the way he will mark and the way I will mark. There is a common assumption that he will get better with experience. The more he marks, the better he will be. Yet, he will still not have the experiences I have had. He is not an expert reader and not an expert writer. Take that principle to exam boards. An examiner will mark hundreds of scripts. However, there have been numerous cases of exam papers being marked up after a remark. So based on this idea a student could do lots of self and peer assessments and still lack the understanding needed to identify success.

Maybe, where we need to concentrate our efforts on is not the marking but the thinking process. Students need to think about the process of writing or reading analysis. We want more thoughtful crafters of work and we want them to reflect. Ponder. Think. Our obsession of being better has led us to the path of marking obsession. What must this do to get better? We are asking a novice to think like an expert. If we look at Berger’s butterfly analogy, the student drawing a butterfly took several drafts to get the final version. There was no mark scheme. There was a photograph to compare with and that was all there was.

One of the things I like about the assessment without levels is the idea of getting rid of the levels. We will no longer have phases like ‘to get to a level 5 you need to’. Maybe, instead of focusing on the ‘better’ aspect we should be focusing on what needs ‘changing’. Surely, the process of changing work implies change for improvement. But, our obsession with adding things has left the process of self-assessment and peer assessment with a funny taste. It is always ‘ I need to add better words’ or ‘I need more similes’ and not ‘the opening is too predictable’ or ‘tone isn’t quite right’.  Greatness, it seems, for students, it about adding things. Think about life. We all think our life is incomplete. It is missing something. The reality is we need to change what we already have. Not add million pounds. However, if anybody is willing to give me a million pounds I’d happily ‘change’ my opinion.

Self /peer assessment shouldn’t be about adding the all-important magic ingredient. It should be about changing things. So maybe the question we set with peer assessment is not:

What do they need to do to make it better?  

The questions we should be asking are:

What should be changed?

What should be removed?

The horrible ‘Even Better If’ feeds into this idea of adding things. It is so tempting for a student to just say add a simile at the end of it. Improvement isn’t about adding; it is about changing and improving things. The most able students don’t suffer from writing that is like stuffed crust pizza, oozing out everything under the sun. They write concise, clear writing that gets the job done.    

So, what am I suggesting about peer assessment? I am suggesting that we consider changing how we use it in the classroom. Ditch the obsession with words like ‘better’ and ‘improvement’ and focus on ‘change’ and ‘removing’. Put crafting the work at the heart of the feedback loop. Get students to think about the process and not the end product. If you need a stamp, then use one. The student used their brain in this lesson stamp is available from all good stockists from December 3rd.     

Peer and self-assessment should show that a student has thought about the work they have produced and explored how to change it. The change is where the progress takes place.

The Emperor walks down the street waving to the crowd. His pink, spotty buttocks wobble as his feet hit the floor.

From the hotel across the street, I wait. My eyes waiting for the moment.

The Emperor bends down, providing people in the crowd an alarming moment, revealing the head of one of his entourage. The person only known as EBI.

I aim the gun and fire.

The crowd scream.

The person known as EBI has ceased to be. A purple pen is buried in his chest. The contents of his pocket are revealed. Amongst the change, there is a stamp. Purple ink and blood stain its plastic surface. The words on it read: Verbal Feedback.

Thanks for reading



  1. I'd like to add to this my personal horror at the thought of 'peer assessment' of teachers. To some, it seems such a wonderful collegiate idea - all that shared practice, mentoring each other, constructive commentary, etc., but I'm not one of them. You hit the nail on the head when you said that assessment needs to be carried out by the experts and my colleagues are not. I'm particularly affronted by any peer assessment carried out by subject leaders who clearly have a great deal less expertise in their subjects than I have, and certainly have a lot less experience overall (the price one pays for staying the job this long!). During the Master's in Educational Assessment course, which I took a few years ago, peer assessment was naturally all the rage. We were required to give a short presentation and the marks would be an amalgamation of the peer assessments of the others in the group. I didn't have any faith in it. I was not fit to judge others' presentations and I doubted anyone was fit to judge mine. As it turned out, one of the students marked everyone particularly badly and this ACTUALLY AFFECTED the final grade of that module. I did complain and this was remedied but it did nothing to improve my view of peer assessment. Having said that, I do still get the pupils to look at each other's work, but this is only to help in the spotting of specific things in the same way that we sometimes need another pair of eyes to help with editing (as you point out in your poem).

  2. Thank you, Ju. The peer assessment on your course sounds awful. You'd think that they'd see the flaws in the process. ; )

  3. For better assessment, here is another reference Assessment Templates.


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