Resource Database: Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences

Title Using Self and Peer Assessment to Improve Students' Essay Writing: a Case Study from Geography
Originator Rachel Pain
Department Division of Geography and Environmental Management, University of Northumbria, NE1 8ST
Tel. +44 (0)191 227 3754
Fax. +44 (0)191 227 4715

This project aims to improve the essay writing performance of first year geography undergraduates. Numerous guides to study skills are available (this department publishes its own), but the degree to which students engage with these and successfuly relate advice to the context of set assignments is debatable. So this project integrates skills training into the curriulum and assessment process of an existing introductory human geography unit. Surveys of our students have shown that they come to University with very different experiences of writing essays; some are expert, some have never written a geography essay before. These disparities will only increase as more entrants come from non-traditional routes (eg mature students).

The intention was that through self assessment and peer assessment as well as tutor assessment of essays, students would learn about assessment criteria and ways of meeting these. As these techniques are unfamiliar to most students, and past experience shows they sometimes view them negatively, it was important to stress the value of the project to their learning, to prepare them in a workshop, and to supervise and to regulate the assessment process carefully. Various exercises are used with students, including one devised in house ("the grading game"), which aim to help students devise assessment criteria and think about ways of meeting them, and are followed by question and answer sessions with staff. Students have a few weeks in which to write their essays, after which peer assessment is carried out anonynously under exam conditions, using the agreed criteria. Finally, essays are assessed by combining the staff mark (weighted 50%), self and peer marks (25% each), and students receive three sets of feedback for consideration in a follow up workshop. Staff see students' self assessment sheet when they mark essays, which identifies self-perceived strengths and weaknesses, and the opportunity to comment on these has proven valuable.

Student feedback from the first two years is mostly very positive. Although many are uncomfortable about peer assessment and find it difficult, they tend to feel that the whole experience teaches them a lot and helps them develop skills. There has been far less concern about the 'fairness' of marks than anticipated. Self and peer marks tend to vary from the staff marks, sometimes considerably, because of the subjective nature of essay assessment and the relative inexperience of the students assessors. The main concern of staff, however, is the benefit to student learning from this formative assessment.

Relevant References:


Essay writing
Peer assessment
Self assessment

An expanded version of this case study abstract appears in the GDN Guide "Assessment in Geography"

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