An orchestrated success

June 26, 1998

Ulster pioneers peer assessment in music. Olga Wojtas reports

Music students differ from other kinds of students. Unlike most of their contemporaries, they are likely to have been skilled performers for years. Some could be said to be leaning towards the prima donna.

"They express their musicianship through their performance, and are very sensitive to criticism of any kind," says Desmond Hunter of Ulster University's music division. Several years ago, students on Ulster's BMus degree were becoming increasingly agitated about procedures for marking their performances. This seemed to stem partly from a lack of understanding of marking criteria, and partly from a somewhat skewed view of their own abilities.

In response the music department launched a peer assessment scheme with help from the Higher Education Funding Council's development of teaching and learning programme. The scheme has turned out to be a carefully orchestrated success. "We did have some reservations to start with, because we didn't know what to expect," Dr Hunter says. "But we realise now that peer assessment is part of learning, and regardless of the nature of the task, students prepare for it. They develop skills which are important for whatever career they go into: teamwork, writing reports, listening to the views of others, responding and expressing their views clearly. "

So much for the students but what about their teachers? There has been at least one unexpected effect according to Dr Hunter. Staff initially assumed that with students taking on some responsibility for assessment, their own workload would decrease. In fact, it has doubled, with time-consuming preparation of trial presentations, and giving students feedback.

But the teachers insist they too have benefitted. The process has encouraged then into questioning assessment procedures, becoming less judgemental, and enjoying a stimulating collaboration with students. Between them the students and tutors negotiated assessment procedures and criteria.

Difficulties arose as second-year students were assessing their fellow students. Almost inevitably their comments were coloured by friendships. Strengths and weaknesses would be identified but the marks did not necessarily correlate because they did not want to mark their friends down,said Dr Hunter. Instead final-year students now assess the second-years.

Some instrument specialists were also tending to linger on technical detail, penalising the performers heavily for technical weakness. Discussions led to agreement that performance should be assessed on the basis of four key areas: technique, style, understanding and individuality.

Dr Hunter says: "It's important to get an overview. Every professional makes mistakes, no matter how great they are, but does it mar the overall performance?" Staff have found that the students prepare themselves more thoroughly for performances assessed by their peers rather than by academics, reluctant to let themselves down in front of fellow students.

Staff and students discuss their assessments, but the marks from either group generally compare closely. Tutors intend to renegotiate assessment criteria with each new year group to give them the chance to have their say. The scheme has expanded through the HEFCE grant to traditionally lecture-based modules, with students assessing their peers on oral presentation and teamwork.

The students have proved far less sensitive to potential criticism in seminars rather than performance, and have been remarkably imaginative in their approach. One group, whose task was to identify unifying links in a cantata by Bach, used television's Blind Date format, choosing a partner on the basis of their knowledge of the cantata. "It was terribly slick," says Dr Hunter.

Attendance at seminars has improved, since students feel an obligation to members of their team, as have concentration levels, since students must now be active participants. And they want to ensure their presentation is at least as good as those from the other groups. The students have clearly welcomed peer assessment, with comments such as: "We got an insight into how the lecturers marked and what they expected from us"; we "learned a lot and remembered more as we'd prepared it ourselves"; and we "learned from other peoples' ideas and views".

"But we don't see peer assessment taking over," Dr Hunter says. "Performance is 25 per cent of the module mark, and the seminars are around 20 per cent, so it's not something that worries the students."

* Ulster University is holding a conference on peer learning and peer assessment in music and cognate disciplines on September 10-12. For further information, contact UU's short course and professional development unit, tel 01232 366680, fax 01232 366060.

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