Peer Assessment

I hate to be one of the first to mention it, but it feels like summer is waning. As much as I love what I do during the academic year, summer break never seems long enough to catch up on what gets back-burnered by the demands of teaching – in my case, teaching students within the context of litigation. Maybe I’m jumping the gun in sensing the nearness of fall. But I’m working on my syllabus.

One idea that I am attempting to implement during the upcoming year is peer assessment. One of my course goals is for students to develop the ability to engage in professional, collaborative teamwork. I hope to use peer assessment to confirm (or at least to cause me to examine more closely) my own conclusions about how well students take initiative, accept responsibility, and collaborate on client representation with other members of their case teams.

I am aware that peer assessment is used in non-legal education to foster commitment to, and fairly award credit for, small group assignments. The small group assignments themselves are often meant to enhance student learning in larger, lecture-based classes. Students are required to assess each other’s contributions to the overall group effort on each of several projects. Research on such student assessments indicates that students put emphasis on attendance, preparation, participation, and attitude.

But in the education of law students, I can also see the role of peer assessment as tool to instill the value of professionalism. Students who know their teammates are expected to assess their levels of commitment and industry will have reason to perform diligently and professionally with one another at all times – even when faculty are not able to directly observe them. In other words, they’ll need to make certain they are pulling their weight within the dynamic of the case team. In addition, a formal mechanism giving students responsibility for evaluating their peers demonstrates that students are expected to act professionally (and therefore, honestly) in making them.

The ability to collaborate well with other professionals to accomplish group goals (in pressure-laden situations) is an important skill for lawyers. Also important is an appreciation for the value of mutual respect and fairness, even under circumstances that involve an element of competition. Can peer assessment help facilitate these goals?

One Response

  1. I agree with Margaret that peer review can accomplish the goals she mentions. Care must be taken, however, when using students who are novice peer reviewers. Training is essential. In the Best Practices book on pages 174-77 we discuss the importance of training students to give and to receive feedback, and we provide guidelines that were developed by Ralph Cagle.

    It is critical to get the students’ commitment to participate seriously in the role of teacher. On the first day of my ICN course, I explained the importance of peer reviews to achieving the objectives of the course, and I asked students who were not prepared to take that responsibility seriously to drop the course.

    When using peer reviewers, be sure to set realistic expectations and communicate these to the students. Very few novice peer reviewers will give expert level feedback, but they can be taught to give helpful, not harmful feedback.

    I made sure to rotate reviewers so students would not get stuck with an uncommitted peer reviewer for the entire semester. Some people might reasonably take the position that repeated use of the same reviewer would lead to better communication between the reviewer and the reviewee (is that a word?).

    There are people out there who have used peer reviewers longer and more extensively than I have, including the folks at BYU. I would really like to hear how other people train and use student peer reviewers, or adjunct or lay reviewers for that matter.

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