How to make peer feedback a constructive group effort

By Yf Reykers

Peer feedback is often included in courses as a tool for collaborative learning. Yet, is it always so collaborative and constructive?

In theory, providing comments on another student’s assignment and engaging with the comments from peers is a formative experience. Peer feedback is a way of active learning. Students take responsibility for their own learning and that of their direct peers. Peer dialogue is essential for good feedback.

In reality, the typical in-class peer feedback session often looks like this: student A provides comments on the assignment of student B, who listens to these comments and takes notes. In rare occasions does this lead to a constructive discussion or dialogue. Research has furthermore shown that students mostly approach peer feedback as learning about how they are performing, rather than about how to make progress – which is also known as feedforward.

This made me wonder: how can we make peer feedback a truly collaborative effort where all students actively contribute and where they stimulate each other to make progress?

The challenges of creating such a collaborative learning environment in which ideas can thrive and develop are known. Overly confident students might show off, shy ones tend to remain silent. Taking this obstacle seriously, John Harbord earlier suggested using short writing exercises during tutorial sessions to level the playing field of contributions and stimulate collaboration. I decided to engage with this advice to redesign peer feedback sessions.

Peer feedback on research papers

On multiple occasions throughout the various European Studies programmes at FASoS students are expected to write a research paper. This confronts them with the challenge of finding a research problem and developing a sound research question, an issue for which they need regular feedback. As a course coordinator or thesis supervisor, we often receive questions such as ‘is this a good research question?’ or ‘can you give me a research question?’. This also happened to me, as coordinator of a course in the Research Master European Studies programme, where the final product was a research paper, and during thesis supervision in the Bachelor European Studies.

To deal with this, I developed the following writing exercise as a ‘new’ form of peer feedback.

Early in the course and supervision process, at the stage when students had an idea about a general research problem and a basic understanding of the literature, I asked them during a group session to write down their initial research problem (Research Master) or draft research question (Bachelor thesis supervision) in the middle of a blank sheet of paper. The rule was to limit it to one sentence, which was for many a challenge. I collected these sheets, numbered them and grouped students in pairs of two.

I then randomly redistributed the sheets among the student pairs, making sure that no pair would receive their own sheets. The student pairs received 10 minutes to look at the sheets and write down, as a mind map around the research problem or draft question, all their ideas and suggestions about how to narrow down focus. After 10 minutes, I collected the sheets and distributed them again so that every pair received two new sheets. We repeated this procedure until every pair had provided input on all sheets, except their own. Thereafter, students received their own sheet, which now contained a host of ideas, suggestions for improvement and questions for clarification.

Picture 1: Feedback document after a Bachelor thesis supervisory group meeting

Picture 2: Feedback document after a Bachelor thesis supervisory group meeting


Collaborative and constructive feedback

Did it work and what is there to learn from this feedback experiment?

First, students were surprised by the amount of input on their research idea. Comments varied from suggestions about how to narrow down the initial research focus to specific case suggestions. Clearly, it went beyond the input they usually receive during traditional peer feedback sessions. There also seemed to be a stronger focus on how to make progress.

Second, anonymisation of the sheets and the paired set-up avoided shy students having to provide comments on a peer’s work in front of the entire group. It allowed them to articulate their comments without having to think about how these would come across. The 10-minute time cap furthermore prevented that the more confident students could seize the floor.

Third, by tasking students to note down their input as a mind map, they did not have to think about the structure of their feedback. Rather, it allowed them to freely express their ideas and constructively build on the input from their peers.

Fourth, the exercise taught students that they themselves could come up with sound research questions, without much supervisor input. It made them experience how active collaboration and dialogue leads to better feedback.

Finally, this particular feedback setting can be used at different stages during the writing of a research paper. For instance, you can apply a similar exercise once students have a final research question. You can ask them to offer suggestions about viable theories, to discuss operationalisation of specific concepts or to provide input on suitable data collection and analysis methods.

Of course, the exercise might not always work. Some students pick up feedback easily, while others need more follow-up. It does not take away responsibility from the supervisor. However, it can show students the value of breaking the traditional, one-directional feedback modus.

About the author

Yf Reykers is Assistant Professor in International Relations at FASoS. He teaches in the Bachelor and Research Master European Studies. When he is not teaching, Yf studies the international and domestic politics of military operations, with a particular interest in questions of accountability.