We can all do with a second pair of eyes

11th August 2006 at 01:00
Lynne Hunter, Rachel Law and Elizabeth Weir found that peer assessment benefits teachers and pupils

In an effort to widen our teaching experiences and challenge ourselves fully in advance of our induction year, a small cohort of students in the final BEd year at Jordanhill opted for a Highland placement last session. A distinguishing feature of this placement was being granted the opportunity to participate in a pilot peer assessment programme among students. Peer assessment is already established within the revised BEd degree but, never having experienced it within our course, we were initially apprehensive.

Our initial reservations about the pilot led us independently to formulate our own rationale for the practice. Immediately pressing was the need to demonstrate our competence in relation to professional benchmarks. As student teachers, we were expected to "seek and act on advice" and "engage in the systematic investigation of practice". Of course, we recognise that these expectations are not exclusive to student teachers or new probationers, as many reflective practitioners will be aware.

As the first participants in this scheme, we were given the flexibility to create our own set of procedures. One fundamental principle was to conduct the assessments in trios rather than pairs. There would also be two "rounds" of assessments, each preceding a tutor visit; all three visits in each round would be conducted within one school day; hourly sessions would allow assessors time to observe, interact with the class and discuss with the fellow observer; there would be no specific pedagogical focus for the session; the university assessment schedule would be used to guide thinking, resulting in three development points; feedback would be of a formative nature: comments only and no grades; feedback would be withheld until the end of the day, with time built in for personal justifications of practice; a second round of assessments would follow up prior development needs and identify subsequent ones; participants would be encouraged to teach a different curricular area and demonstrate different strategies within the second assessment.

On reflection, the resulting learning is immeasurable and can be summed up in three distinct categories. First, there was learning gained from observing. Adopting the role of "observer" within a fellow student teacher's classroom - a unique opportunity for us - principally enhanced our analytical skills in relation to pupil learning and the wide range of teaching strategies and approaches adopted by others.

The development of these analytical skills was not only of benefit to the person being observed, but also for the mentors in that it facilitated reflection upon our own practice. Additionally, being in the position to observe the whole class in a non-teaching role heightened our awareness of utilising missed teaching opportunities in the classroom.

The analytical discourse that occurred between the two observers throughout each observation provided an opportunity to consider an alternative view of the same lesson. Finally, and unexpectedly for us, it was discovered through the process of observing one another that "areas for development"

are not indicative of weakness. Previously, such development needs would incur lower grades and carry a negative connotation. However, the development points arising from these assessments were received gratefully, and were recognised as a means by which to improve practice.

Second, we found learning gained from being observed. Interestingly, it contradicted what we were comfortable with at times, and more often highlighted the unexpected. While assessment visits only consisted of an hour's observation, the impact of preparatory research influenced planning throughout the entire placement. This allowed for experimentation with approaches, improving daily teaching practice. Having peers observe a lesson instilled confidence in us to keep our classroom door "open", detracting from the fear of having other adults present.

Given that the peer assessments had a purely formative purpose, the feedback sessions were imperative to the process. These sessions provided an opportunity to justify decisions and strategies, fostering rich educational debate, while the use of constructive criticism proved to be empowering. This was due to the equal status and experience of the participants.

Third, learning gained from the process generally. Embedded within the educational debate were opportunities for questioning of peers that were unlike those typically aimed at more experienced teachers. Links were frequently made with research and previous university module content.

The process of planning, developing, implementing and evaluating the pilot programme, a welcome responsibility in our final year, demanded skills similar to those expected of professionals within a working party. The reflection involved, both upon the process and our own practice, was invaluable. Certainly, all participants in this pilot programme did, as a result, adopt new teaching strategies while on placement.

Relaying comments back to peers proved beneficial in preparation for future situations which may require sensitive and professional communication - be it through mentoring, further peer assessment or student-teacher discourse.

In terms of the future, our hope is that teachers will be afforded opportunities to engage in peer assessment. Collaborating with genuine peers on a regular basis would, hopefully, not only reduce the anxiety associated with external visitors, but would also provide guidance for the assessment of student teachers.

Peer assessment can be carried out by teachers with varying levels of experience, but should avoid a hierarchical structure. It could also be viewed as an element of continuing professional development, while additionally contributing to genuine collegiality within the school.

Our experience suggests that pupils could also benefit substantially. As teachers become involved in reflection upon, and analysis of, their own practice, positive repercussions will occur in their daily teaching. A teacher's involvement should improve the conditions he or she provides for children and might encourage their own participation in peer assessment.

Children's engagement and involvement in such a process encourages them to become "effective contributors", in line with the requirements of A Curriculum for Excellence.

Lynne Hunter, Rachel Law and Elizabeth Weir were BEd 4 students at Strathclyde University.

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