This is the first post in a two-part series about how students can benefit from using the peer review process for assessment. The series is a collaboration between Les Kirkup, Angus Gentle, Jurgen Schulte and Neela Griffiths. You can read part two of the series here.

All academics are familiar with the concept of peer review, the most important step for the acceptance of new scholarship in the research community. When you publish in a journal, or present a conference paper, the peer review process grants your seal of approval. Students too can benefit from learning about peer review practices.

Les Kirkup, Angus Gentle and Jurgen Schulte have used this process in different ways. In this post, Les and Angus describe their process.

Les Kirkup: Measurement and Analysis of Physical Processes

I’ve used peer review for the senior physics subject Measurement and Analysis of Physical Processes (MAPP) that has as its focus a ‘hands-on’ research-type project that is laboratory-based. The subject brings together many learnings from previous subjects (but here, I’d argue, in a convincingly authentic context) that had a strong experimental focus. In MAPP the students write a paper (similar to a paper you would prepare for publication in a journal) based on the work they have done.  

To give the subject as much authenticity as possible, I devised an assessment scheme that replicated many of the features of the ‘assessment’ that academics are subjected to when they submit a research paper for publication. A notable feature is the double-blind reviewing of papers where neither the author of the paper, nor the reviewer, are aware of the identity of the other. In MAPP, students are an integral part of the review process as they have the responsibility of reviewing a draft version of a paper (they are guided in the review by a detailed rubric which I supply). 

When you ask students to read advice, for example on how to write a paper, it can be that they pay scant regard to that advice, much to the frustration of the academics. One of the benefits of having students do a review is that they must engage seriously with the rubric in order to write their review. This bears fruit when they return to complete their own paper, and in fact I’d say this is the most valuable aspect of the whole exercise. Of course, getting feedback from the anonymous reviewer can also make a big difference to the quality of the final paper. On that point: many students do go the extra mile when giving feedback, to the extent that they even annotate the draft with suggestions (as well as writing an overarching review). In fact, they often spend more time (and write more) on the review than I would/could do. 

The challenges are that a single session is a short time to do an experimentally based project and so there have to be some pretty hard deadlines if students are to complete on time: the experimental work, writing a draft paper, submitting the draft paper for review, reviewing someone else’s draft paper, getting the reviewed draft back to the student, responding to the draft, and writing and submitting the final paper. Another challenge is simply to manage the double-blind process.

Measurement Analysis of Physical Processes continued to evolve when Angus Gentle took on the subject.

Angus Gentle: peer review in MAPP for remote learning

We continue to tweak how MAPP is delivered. We still use peer review, but with online learning and the reduction of in-class interaction, the paper describing their project has now become a presentation to the class, presented in a similar manner as would be done at a conference, with 10-15 mins per group to present their project. 

The peer review consists of two parts, each student undertakes a peer review of a draft of the presentation slides. In addition, every student assesses each presentation given. Part of the presentation is being able to defend their work to their peers and explain any experiments/analysis that were carried out in the project. 

I find the easiest way to ensure student engagement is to be genuinely interested in the projects myself, and to allow students to undertake projects of their choosing. While this requires me to be fully across the experimental/analysis details of 15 different projects simultaneously to help troubleshoot and give suggestions, it is worth it as it makes for a fun semester with everyone actively participating. 

The students continue to engage very well with the subject as it gives them a taste of what research can be like. Students have commented that undertaking the reviews really encourages them to carefully read the rubric and think about analysis and presentation of results, which helps them with their own projects. 

In the first few weeks, the students learn data analysis and typically undertake a range of lab experiments – I am currently setting up a combination of remotely controlled lab equipment, and realistic simulations, as well as experiments that can be completed from home to get the students engaged from the beginning of the semester during lockdown.

The professional environment and the teaching and learning environment are more reliant on virtual experiences that ever before. The approach in this blog of preparing science students to develop professional skills such as peer reviewing, defence of arguments and provision of feedback to peers, within a remote working environment, is an excellent example of WIL in action.

Dimity Wehr, one of the facilitators of the WIL hot topic

Stay tuned for the next post!

Next week, we’ll hear from Jurgen Schulte and Neela Griffiths about how peer review has been used in the subject Energy Science and Technology.

Feature image by Anna Zhu

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