Helping pupils to decide what is right and wrong with work by their peers is a valuable lesson
Peer assessment and self assessment are likely to be an increasingly important element in all levels of education. But how do you get secondary pupils to assess their own, or each other's, work in a meaningful way? Without clear instruction about what success criteria they're looking for, their suggestions for improvement will be vague and unhelpful.
Such suggestions should be made early on, where pupils still have a chance to influence the quality of the finished work. We tried it out on our Year 9 French class, getting them to write a paragraph in French entitled Ma Ville (my town).
They exchanged papers and commented on a partner's work. The only guidance from the teacher was that a suggestion for improvement should be made. One pupil wrote: "Good work, except for some incorrect spellings."
Only then did the teacher discuss "success criteria" with the pupils, for example, the use of directions (nordnorth, sudsouth), prepositions (pr s denear, ... cote denext to, loin defar from), feminine endings to adjectives where necessary and extending sentences by using connectives.
The pupils were also encouraged to praise something already done well and to choose another criterion on which improvement could be made. Repeating the process, the same pupil then came up with: "You have used directions and prepositions well. Try to make your sentences longer by using parce que (because) and pourtant (however).
The class then compared the first and second comments and discussed how many suggestions for improvement should be made. They even discussed what they thought was the whole purpose of marking.
One pupil wrote afterwards: "Comment 1 did not show me how to improve at all, whereas Comment 2 did and that helped a lot." They seemed to grasp that helpful suggestions are at the heart of learning Paula Allen is a modern languages teacher at the Swinton High School, Salford, Greater Manchester. Steve Illingworth is a teaching and learning consultant for Salford.