The Handbook for Economics Lecturers

The basic idea behind self- and peer assessment is to provide mechanisms that help students to evaluate themselves and their work more critically. An ability to assess one’s own strengths and weaknesses is an essential life-skill that facilitates personal development whether in study or in the workplace.

Readers should note, in the following suggestions, that students are not involved in final marking. There is always the danger that where the assessment does not contribute to their final mark, they may not take it as seriously as desired.

The rationale for peer assessment has been summarised by Boud (1986): ‘Students have an opportunity to observe their peers throughout the learning process and often have a more detailed knowledge of the work of others than do their teachers.’ Brown and Dove (1991) also argue that well-designed peer and self-assessment can produce the advantages listed in Box 5.

Box 5 Rationale for peer assessment

  • It encourages student ownership of their personal learning.
  • It motivates and encourages active participation in learning.
  • It makes assessment a shared activity, by challenging the proposition that the lecturer is the best person to assess the student’s inputs and outputs.
  • It promotes a genuine interaction of ideas.
  • It stimulates more directed and effective learning, whilst encouraging a more autonomous approach.
  • It develops transferable personal skills.

More recent research has provided some support for these arguments (Searby and Ewers, 1997; MacAlpine, 1999), and these ideas are summarised in Top Tips 4.

Top Tips 4 Self- and peer assessment

  • Good self- and peer assessment forms do not ask questions that allow the student to hide from honest appraisal. Avoid questions that elicit ‘yes/no’ answers, such as ‘Is this a good piece of work?’, or questions that are threatening, such as ‘How many hours did you put into this piece of work?’
  • Good forms ask questions that force self-evaluation.
  • Do not give students the same questionnaire time after time.

For example, a common approach is to provide students with a self-assessment form. This contains a series of questions and issues that encourage students to evaluate critically the quality of their work, and it should correspond closely with the criteria that the learning facilitator used when assessing the work. For example, self-assessment forms may ask the student whether the work has a clear structure; whether it has reviewed the existing literature adequately; whether references are properly recorded, and so on.

Box 6 details some general questions that might be put on an assessment form. Other questions should be specific to the particular task at hand. Asking themselves these questions and submitting substantive written answers requires students to supply a more honest appraisal that should feed back into modifying and improving their work. The completed form is not of great value in itself – it is the process that it induces that is important.

Box 6 Some general questions and prompts to use in a self-assessment form

  • Describe briefly the structure of this work
  • What is the principal argument of this essay?
  • What do you think is a fair score or grade for the work you submitted?
  • What was the thing you think you did best in this assignment?
  • What was the thing that you think you did least well in this assignment?
  • What did you find the hardest part of this assignment?
  • What was the most important thing you learned in doing this assignment?
  • What references did you use most in doing this work?

In peer assessment, coursework is usually exchanged between students who use similar forms to comment on the work of their colleagues. Lecturers may then ask for a supplementary submission that reports on how students have acted upon the comments of their peers. Note that student peer assessment should be anonymous, with assessors randomly chosen so that friendship cannot influence the process.

There is a danger that self- and peer assessment degenerates into a superficial process, since much depends upon whether students understand the purpose and their willingness to participate. It is easy to imagine students completing self-assessment forms simply through obligation, having completed the coursework and with no intention of revising the work in light of any weaknesses they uncover. However, equally, self-assessment can be a support to students – well-thought-out forms help to clarify what is expected of students and can form a natural basis for educators’ final comments and feedback.

As regards resource costs, self-assessment is unlikely to save time. It takes time to initiate the process and design a good-quality assessment form. It also takes time to educate the students to complete it well, and to give feedback after they have completed and submitted their assessment form. Of course, it is also time-consuming for students who may already be overloaded with assessment. The benefits of the process to the educator should take the form of better student performance in the final examination.7