How can students judge the quality of their own work?
The idea that students might assess themselves and their peers raises doubts about reliability, standards and equity. Yet, ironically, these issues are rarely bought up in relation to traditional assessment, such as examinations, although there is very little evidence of standardisation across universities - indeed there is little evidence of congruence across disciplines or departments.
The problem of assessment is that it serves several functions and needs to be accessible to different audiences.
League tables are made of quality assurance mechanisms, such as the teaching quality audit and the research assessment exercise. These provide generalised information about the quality of education provision and expertise. Their main purpose is to offer evidence of accountability at national and global level. By contrast, assessment that serves "talent development" is used to provide feedback to students about the quality of their work to aid their learning.
Too often the purpose of assessment is ignored and traditional practices, such as examinations and essays, are employed with little regard to what they are trying to test or measure.
The challenge is striking a balance between assessment practices that test students' knowledge and skills and the critical capacities that are considered pedagogically sound by tutors and professional bodies.
Peer assessment involves students making judgements about the quality of their peers' work. This can either take the form of a grade or qualitative statements made against criteria.
It is a fairly simple idea that stems from our understanding of how individuals learn. To build on existing knowledge, students need feedback on their progress and an indication of whether they are meeting required standards.
When judging criteria are supplied, by the tutor or professional body, these are usually made available to students with the expectation that they will use them to guide their development. But research has shown that even when criteria are supplied, students rarely make use of them or fully understand what they mean.
Peer assessment offers the opportunity for students to discuss and challenge criteria and to get constructive feedback from someone who is going through the same experience.
This sharing of information about what constitutes good work raises several issues. While peer assessment opens the debate about what is quality in a given subject, perhaps the real cause of anxiety is not reliability but an unwillingness on the part of staff to relinquish their power as assessors and figures of authority.
To allow students openly to debate and judge assessment criteria may be seen as an infringement of academics' professionalism and expert knowledge.
However, by denying students the chance to understand how judgements and grades are formed we disable them from developing critical and evaluative skills.
The growing body of research into peer assessment indicates that when students have access to criteria and opportunities to practise they are perfectly adept at making judgements.
A review of peer assessment practices indicates that even when students are asked to grade each other's work they are quite consistent with the tutor grade.
There is some evidence that when asked to self-assess, weaker students are more likely to over-mark and more able students to do the opposite. However, my experience suggests that this tends to even out over time when students become more used to working with criteria and when expectations of their own achievement become more realistic.
In one first-year law module in which students were required to answer problem-solving questions, staff found that students were more likely to bring up issues of confusion with peers than they were in seminars because they did not want to show ignorance.
They also found that working in pairs, students were more likely to identify crucial cases and legal content that been overlooked. Students said they found explaining their thinking and having someone listen to their ideas and plans valuable because it helped them clarify what they were trying to do.
They also said the activity boosted their confidence. Students appear to find it less threatening to receive feedback from peers. The use of peer assessment is increasing and not simply for reasons of expediency (although not having to mark x amount of scripts in draft does act as a useful incentive for staff to give peer assessment a whirl).
But we should not abandon examinations as they serve a unique purpose and offer a controlled setting in which to test individual understanding. But peer assessment provides a framework in which students can come to know and understand what is quality work and this is essential to developing critical, independent learners.
Peer assessments must be integrated into programmes and be appropriate and relevant to the aims and learning objectives of the subject. Activities should also be well prepared and the rationale for implementation clearly thought through. Staff must be committed to the exercise and display to students that it is a valued activity.
Ethics and disclosure are issues for students, who need to be made aware of the need to respect each other's feelings and to value alternative beliefs.
Imposing judgement on someone else's work is threatening and requires sensitivity, although this is no less true of tutor assessment than it is of peer assessment.
Karen Hinett is assistant project manager of the self-assessment in professional and higher education project based at the University of Bristol and funded by HEFCE. A Staff Guide to Self and Peer Assessment and other tools are available at http://www.bristol.ac.uk/Depts/Education/saphe/.htm.