Learning to write for non-specialists: the role of peer assessment

Training students to engage with the public

Each year as part of the Doctoral Training Partnership (DTP) programme in Environmental Research, students are asked to write 500-word blog posts on scientific topics of their choice. This important assignment not only introduces the students to writing for a non-specialist audience but also builds their online presence as environmental scientists. In previous years, students would email their blog posts to the course director, Lizzy Jeffers. She would then mark them and make them available in a shared Dropbox folder for the academic director to upload to the DTP blog, which is publicly available. Unsurprisingly, Lizzy wanted to find a more efficient way for students to submit their assignments and to receive feedback from both their peers and tutors.

Exploring the potential of peer assessment

To address this problem, Lizzy and her colleagues explored the possibilities within WebLearn for handling online submission and assessment. They settled on the Assignments tool, which proved to be an effective solution for managing the transfer of content. However, for Lizzy and her colleagues the most exciting feature of the Assignments tool was the peer assessment option. This gave students the essential experience of providing and receiving critical feedback to and from each other. It also broadened the range of views that each student received for their work before it was published as a post on the DTP blog.

The DTP course team created four blog assignments for students to complete before the end of their first term. Detailed instructions for submitting text and files were included on the assignment page in WebLearn, and the deadlines for each task were added to the class WebLearn calendar.

For the peer assessment activity, Lizzy asked students to review two posts written by their peers. Weblearn would make the allocation based on who already had submitted work (and thus was deemed available to review). Students had to provide constructive feedback on each post and mark it according to the rubric provided: e.g. ‘ready for publication’ or ‘in need of amendments for clarity.’

Once the students had given their verdicts Lizzy, as the tutor, was able to review the draft posts and peer assessments. If necessary, she could revise the marks herself.

One of the student’s blogs on the DTP website

One of the student’s blogs on the DTP website

The outcome: greater breadth and depth in feedback

The Assignments tool in WebLearn has made it possible for the course team to achieve their aim to streamline the submission process, incorporate peer review into the blog assignment and manage the flow of content from students to the public blog. However, the most positive outcome has been achieved through using the peer assessment feature. The depth and usefulness of peer assessments exceeded the expectations of most students and was much better than anything that could have been obtained from just one faculty assessor. Feedback also reflected a broader range of views than would otherwise be possible. The students were particularly good at identifying aspects of a blog that might be unclear to non-specialist readers, which is especially important in an interdisciplinary programme such as environmental research.

From the tutor’s perspective, Lizzy has appreciated the dashboard – which allows her to see who has or hasn’t submitted their own work and/or carried out their peer reviews – and the mechanism for moderating the peer review marks. The only unsatisfactory aspect from the students’ viewpoint is having to wait until the submission deadline has been reached before they can begin their peer reviews, even if everyone has submitted their work early (a restriction imposed by the Assignments tool).

Overall, the use of the peer assessment feature in WebLearn has resulted in higher quality publications for the DTP blog.

Preparation is paramount

Lizzy highlights the importance of careful planning before using the technology in this case study. She gives the two following examples:

  • Give yourself time to learn how the WebLearn tools work so that you can try out new activities and make the most of what the platform has to offer you and your students.
  • In preparation for peer assessment, provide students with clear guidance on how to construct useful feedback and set submission deadlines so that everyone can obtain feedback in a timely manner.

Further information

  • To find out how to implement peer assessment with your own students, read our step-by-step guide to the peer assessment option in the WebLearn Assignments tool.
  • Read other case studies in this collection showing the different ways in which WebLearn can support your students’ learning.
  • To find out more about WebLearn, contact the WebLearn team.
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