In a previous blog post, we explored the importance of peer collaboration in the classroom. Another way students can support each other is through peer critique. The importance of feedback is well known amongst teachers and school leaders but there is a range of research about what effective feedback looks like in the classroom. If this is a challenge for teachers to get right, then consider how difficult peer critique and feedback will be for students—especially those lacking the training and expertise their teachers have! Peer critique is important, but students cannot be expected to know how to do this effectively. There must be clear guidance and advice provided to learners, in addition to modelled examples of effective feedback.
Dylan Wiliam and Siobhan Leahy have argued that effective feedback should focus on improving the learner, rather than their work specifically (2015). In other words, we should prioritise developing our students’ knowledge, understanding, and skills—not their work for its own sake. Students should understand this just as much as their teachers, especially when they receive and provide feedback to their peers. If we want to employ peer critique in our classroom, this is a skill that needs to be taught and modelled, just like any other cognitive skill.
Another consideration is how the peer critique will be received. Students often respect the feedback and critique from their teacher, who is seen as an expert. It may be more valued than feedback and critique from a peer—which may even be ignored. However, students need to value the importance of peer critique too. This too needs to be taught and developed. We know that effective teachers create a supportive environment where students respect and pay attention to their peers’ thoughts (Coe et al., 2020).
A great example to support students with understanding the impact of peer critique can be found in the video clip entitled ‘Austin’s Butterfly’ led by teacher and author of An Ethic of Excellence, Ron Berger. This example shows how student Austin was able to improve his work (an illustration of a butterfly) significantly and noticeably through acting on peer critique. As the children in the video point out, the critique was kind, specific and helpful. Feedback can be very personal, for both adults and children, therefore the kindness element is key! This ensures peer critique does not cause hurt or upset, but instead offers constructive and helpful critique so the learner can improve.
Students should be trained how to provide peer critique. This can be achieved through showing good examples of peer critique—and contrasted with examples of less effective peer critique. Sentence starters and writing frames can be provided to support students in crafting their peer critique. Success criteria can be referred to when giving peer critique. Older students can refer to examination mark schemes when assessing and providing feedback.
Of course, knowing how to give peer critique is a crucial first step; but students also have to be responsive and willing to engage with the feedback provided by their peers. Wiliam and Leahy go on to write, about feedback “The only thing that matters with feedback is the reaction of the recipient. That’s it. Feedback—no matter how well designed—that the student does not act upon is a waste of time” (2015). If students ignore peer critique, then the critique has been a waste of time and a missed learning opportunity. Through training, modelling, and resilience, peer critique can become embedded as a classroom activity for learners to support one another. As teachers, we should strive to create a culture in the classroom where students welcome critique and feedback—both from the teacher and their peers.
Coe, R., Rauch, C. J., Kime, S., & Singleton, D. (2020). Great teaching toolkit: Evidence Review. Evidence Based Education.
Wiliam, Dylan., & Leahy, S. (2015). Embedding formative assessment: Practical techniques for K-12 classrooms. Learning Sciences International.