Is peer assessment the key to outstanding results?

TES Professional

What is the secret to achieving 100 per cent A*-C grades at A-level? Mark Chutter, course leader for English literature at Sussex Downs College, thinks that effective peer- and self-assessment could be the answer. Here, he explains how he uses this method to achieve outstanding results.

During the four years that I worked as the AS and A2 English Literature Coordinator at a large further education college, I saw exam results improve dramatically. In my final year, 100 per cent of A2 students achieved grades A*-C. Based on value-added criteria, this was “outstanding” progress. 

I can attribute these fantastic results to a talented team of practitioners under my leadership, but also to the powerful nature of peer- and self-assessment − a method that our department uses regularly.

When embedding peer- and self-assessment in my teaching, I always follow the same five steps:

1. Cascade the standard
Learners need to understand the purpose of peer assessment from the outset. Start by showing them the exam criteria, along with a range of exemplar work to illustrate what the examiner is looking for. Modelling a high-grade response in the initial stages of embedding this method is crucial to securing what a top-grade answer looks like in terms of the criteria.

2. Learners become the examiner
I never water down the criteria for post-16 students, but I do differentiate the descriptors and key skills that are being assessed. Get students to work in groups to mark a high-grade example script from your examination board with a band and numerical mark, but not a grade. Ask groups to identify three strengths of the piece of work and three targets for improvement. Once this is completed, get students to repeat the whole process for a piece of lower-band work.  Examination boards usually provide a written commentary that explains the marks awarded for example scripts; this can be illuminating for learners.

3. From peer- to self-assessment
Now that learners understand the criteria and the process of peer assessment, it is time for them to mark the work of others in the class and begin to self-assess their own responses. At this stage, it is crucial to build trust and confidence and to make your students feel empowered. High-order questioning and thinking skills are significant in terms of eliciting responses during discussion. The questioning of work should be exploratory, penetrating and should always relate back to specific assessment objectives or key words from the mark criteria. In order to differentiate, you can provide a scaffolded resource sheet. However, try to avoid blank and meaningless grids, as these can cause confusion. Make sure that your scaffolding is focused and includes questions to extend thinking.

4. Teacher response
Once the students have done their bit, it is time for the teacher to assess the work and offer feedback. I find this stage fascinating and always read the peer- and self-assessment comments before I write my own targets for the learner. This gives me an indication of whether the learners understand both the assessment criteria and the process of peer and self-assessment.

5. Setting targets
It is imperative that learners use the feedback from their peers, themselves and their teacher to drive their learning forward in the next essay or final draft of coursework. To make sure this happens, the exercise should always conclude with students setting themselves three targets. These can be SMART targets set through the virtual learning environment or a similar system if you have these facilities available in your school.

Using students as a learning resource for one another fosters a culture of high expectations and aspirations that will result in students taking ownership of their learning. This enables high achievement, autonomy and critical independence. Once you get peer- and self-assessment right, an improvement in grades is sure to follow.

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