Consider a class that has studied a particular topic. Different students know different amounts about the topic. Some understand one aspect well, others another. Some probably haven’t ‘got it’ at all. You could say that understanding of your topic within the class is lumpy.
How can you efficiently share that knowledge and understanding so that every member of the class is informed, and has a good chance of retaining their deepened understanding in the future? And how do you assess how much they have learned?
The two most common solutions in schools are:
- Have the most knowledgeable individual (the teacher) give a lecture. This could work well if the students would listen, but they never do. Not after the first 2 minutes.
- Have them talk to each other in pairs or small groups. This can work with very self-disciplined groups, but conversations quickly wander off-topic, or are dominated by the most opinionated individuals – not usually the most knowledgeable.
We can do better
Here is an alternative, which I have found to be both effective and time-efficient.
- Pose a question about the topic, and ask each participant to spend 10-15 minutes answering it in writing.
- Show each as many of the other answers as you have time for (another 10-15 minutes), and ask them to provide feedback. Show the answers in pairs, because comparative feedback is much easier to write. Ask your participants to tell you which answer of each pair is better; you will use this later.
- Allow time for participants to view the feedback they have received. Understanding is formed by considering, and reacting to, different perspectives.
- Take all those votes you collected earlier and combine them to create a summative assessment. Now you know who knows how much.
- Gamify the whole thing to help each participant stay focused and deliver the most value to the rest of the group.
Organising this as a paper-based system would be a nightmare, but give each participant a laptop and run it through a database, and the admin side is reduced to pushing a ‘start’ button. The Yacapaca Structured Peer Assessment (SPA) feature does exactly that.
I have run SPA many times, with both children and adults, and it is the best system I know to deepen a group’s understanding of a topic. It does have some limitations, which you need to be aware of:
Not for knowledge
If you simply want to find out ‘do they know X, Y and Z?’ use a quiz. Use SPA when you have moved up the Bloom’s hierarchy to understanding and evaluation.
Ignorance leads to chaos
If your participants are new to the topic, they won’t know enough worth sharing with each other. I use the 50/50 rule of thumb. If at least 50% of participants could score at least 50% on a standard test of the topic, an SPA should work. I have successfully used SPAs directly after a reading exercise, for example.
Misconceptions can get magnified
The 50/50 rule works both ways. If 50 of the participants hold a false belief, they will effectively “sell” it to the rest of the group.
Rules for success with SPA
A few things to bear in mind
Have enough students
The power of SPA comes from students comparatively evaluating each others’ answers, which means you need enough answers for them to compare. In practice, a minimum of 12 active participants is needed. There is no upper limit – in the past, we have run successful SPAs with over 1000 participants.
Allow enough time
Because the whole group has to proceed in lockstep, it’s impossible to alter the timing once started. Remember there must be time for writing, comparing, and reading – 3 different steps. 30-45 minutes total is typical.
Ask one question
If you are asking students to list their knowledge, you’ve chosen the wrong assessment format. Have them go deeply into just one concept.
Provide one evaluation criterion
When marking an essay, you hold multiple criteria in your head – what was covered, structure, grammar, style, etc. That doesn’t work with an SPA. Choose just one and stick to it. As you become expert with the system, you will realise that the evaluation criterion is where you put the teaching point. Students who evaluate the ‘more accurate’ answer will come away with an entirely different set of learning from those who select for the ‘deeper insight’.
Keep it anonymous
Kids, particularly, are very influenced by social dynamics. A peer-assessment exercise will quickly turn into a popularity contest unless strict rules of anonymity are enforced. The software already anonymises responses, but you need to strictly ban signing or even hinting at identity.
Now try it with your own class(es)
I have put together a short list of SPA exercises across different subjects. To try any one of them with your own students, you will need a free Yacapaca membership. That will take you a couple of minutes to set up, and then you are ready to go. There’s a useful introductory video as well. Start here.