In this issue of CDTL Brief, colleagues from the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences discuss various aspects of peer teaching and learning, including their experiences in using Peer Editing and Peer Reviews in their classrooms, as well as the challenges they faced when they applied these pedagogical tools in their respective modules to foster active, student-centred learning.
Over the last years, the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS), particularly CNM, has seen a slow yet steady rise in the use of peer review in the classroom. This is mostly due to the increasing emphasis in our Faculty on student-centred and “bottom-up” teaching and learning. Many of my colleagues see peer review as a valid exercise for training their students on how to engage in the constructive criticism of each others’ work, as well as in sounding out possible areas of trouble and disagreement within their project groups. Despite the obvious teaching and learning merits of the peer review, I have always been sceptical of its application in the undergraduate classroom setting.
The source of this scepticism is threefold. Firstly, I have doubts as to the extent students, who are still in the midst of mastering their own argumentative writing skills, can be sufficiently critical and discerning of their classmate’s written work. On top of this, many students tend to shy away from being perceived as overly “negative” towards their peers. Secondly, I worry about the potential conflicts of interest which may arise when students assess a fellow classmate’s work; in particular, I am doubtful as to whether a student would provide accurate constructive criticism because she may feel that by doing so, she is giving her peer an unfair advantage over herself—an example of the various degrees of egoism and altruism that unavoidably come into play when it comes to in-class peer reviews. Finally, I think it is crucial to embed the peer review into the module not only as a superficial pedagogical exercise, but to connect it as closely to that module’s content as possible. In other words, the peer review must be appropriate not only in terms of its practical application towards assessment in the classroom, but also in terms of illustrating or enabling the discussion of core theories and concepts taught in the module.
In light of the second concern over the issues of ethical egoism and altruism, as well as the third requirement of ensuring that the peer review is intimately connected to the course content, I decided to put my scepticism to the test by introducing peer review in my honours module NM4204 “Ethics in Communications and New Media”. This module focuses on critical thinking, moral self-awareness and responsible action in the face of complex and ambiguous situations in the information age. Debate in this module largely builds on key texts and concepts from ethical theory and the philosophy of technology. Introducing peer review in NM4204 hence allowed me to link the objectives of the exercise to the module’s teaching of skills as well as its content. Students not only learn how to provide their fellow classmates with another perspective (besides mine) on their moral argument and in doing so improve their own methods of moral argumentation as well as their peer’s moral line of reasoning, they will also learn how to reflect on their own beliefs and assumptions through the “mirror” of a peer’s position on the issue. Furthermore, students will have the opportunity to experience the effects of a written moral engagement with their peers, besides the regular face-to-face verbal engagement in class; in other words, they get to experience how the argumentative technology or medium makes a difference in terms of the ethics of academic debate and criticism.
The students were each required to review one of their classmates’ midterm essays in about 80–100 words. Their peers could then use these remarks to enhance their final essays if they wanted to. I assigned the reviews randomly. In order to make the introduction of peer review in this module as fair as possible in light of the students’ various conflicting interests, I decided that the exercise would count towards only 5% of the reviewers’ final grades. I also decided not to have the review influence the peers’ midterm grades to prevent the exercise from being only about the scoring of marks. When explaining the purpose of the peer review in class, I especially stressed the fact that the reviewers had a moral duty to their classmates to do the review properly. Since the reviews were to be posted openly on the IVLE forum, this appeal to ethical altruism could then ideally work hand in hand with the in-class peer pressure to perform the review properly. To help students structure their reviews, I provided three additional guiding questions¹:
1. What do you feel is or are the essay’s greatest strength(s)?
2. What do you think is the strongest objection or counter-argument to the essay’s moral argument(s)?
3. What does your reaction to the essay tell you about your own convictions or assumptions?