I wanted students to give constructive evaluations of their peers. Without grades attached, the process wouldn’t gain any momentum, but attaching grades to peer evaluations also backfired. How could I make this tricky dynamic work? It took me two years to develop a successful approach
When I designed my course Religions of the World, I knew student-led small-group discussions would be a key plank in realizing my course goals. This 2,000-level course in Comparative Religions is a popular offering taken by 120 students per year; students find it a rewarding way to fulfill their Global Studies core requirement. Introducing students to worldviews diverging strongly from their own requires careful attention to dynamics of empathy and respectful dialogue. In large classrooms of 30 students, it is especially challenging to navigate these waters successfully. I knew I would need to use small-group discussions strategically and effectively if I wanted students to get adequate practice at discussing religious difference.
Phase 1: Designing a basic format
I created a regular class activity with several goals in mind. On alternating weeks throughout the semester, students were assigned a reading that consisted of primary source excerpts from sacred scriptures of the particular religion that was introduced the previous week. The readings assigned were designed to position students as primary interpreters of religious texts, rather than consumers of secondary interpretations. This gave them agency and interpretive authority in classroom discussions.
I divided students into small groups of 5, with one student assigned to lead discussion for 30 minutes of class time. Students signed up in advance for their day to lead a group, with every student leading a small-group discussion once in the semester. Leaders were to select short quotes from the reading and prepare open-ended discussion questions to lead their small group. This was not a presentation; student discussion leaders were graded on the quality of questions they prepared and their skill in facilitating an interactive discussion. The goal was creating an intimate circle for dynamic interaction with religious texts and with other members of the group.
I wanted students to participate actively in discussion with one another, so I linked grades to participation and nothing else. I allocated 5 points for each discussion held, and distributed papers for each student to check off in table format: did each of your group members participate, and was it a quality contribution? If your groupmates indicated you participated positively, then you got the full points. I gave student group members a space on their checklist paper to give optional feedback to their discussion leader, which they did to varying degrees, and I redistributed those comments to leaders later. There were no grades attached to that feedback, and the comments were correspondingly sparse and superficial.
Phase 2: Identifying a roadblock
As the semester progressed, some surprises unfolded. First, I learned from observation and conversational feedback that students experienced the small-group format I had designed as a roaring success. This format was a keeper. But the second, less pleasant surprise was that the evaluation and assessment format was a bust. All the students always checked “yes” for all group members—even when I had seen with my own eyes that a student had contributed nothing during the discussion. The social contract of student alliance would not allow anyone to indicate that a classmate’s engagement was less than ideal and thus cost them a grade point. The student evaluations of one another were uniformly positive and therefore meaningless. Conversely, with no points attached to their evaluation of their leaders, very little feedback was offered. The stakes were either too high or too low. Students could not give one another constructive feedback with grade anxiety hovering, and without grade pressure, they opted out of giving feedback entirely.
I had achieved my primary goal for this activity, with most students participating actively in groups and an overall positive impression of their value. However, I had another learning outcome in mind: developing student confidence and skill at critical discussion. To achieve this, I needed to find a way for students to give and receive honest feedback about the process itself. I needed to develop my format further and find a way to make the grade allocation work for the process not against it.
Phase 3: Experimenting with options
As my first semester of teaching this course drew to a close and a second began, I turned this impasse over in my mind. I was attending a CLT year-long workshop series for my cohort of first-year faculty, and we often brought problems from our classrooms into discussions with one another. When I described my dilemma, a CLT facilitator suggested I flip the dynamic: instead of attaching grade credit to the receiver of the peer evaluation, could I try attaching it to the giver of the evaluation? In other words, could I give students a participation grade for providing feedback, rather than awarding the points to students (group members or leaders) for receiving positive feedback from others?
The first semester I tried this, I allocated one point out of the five for giving feedback to the group leader, regardless of content. I began to get results! Meanwhile, I removed the rubric for evaluating participation of others, and asked instead for a self-reflection where each student recapped one of their own ideas that they had contributed during the group discussion. Student’s ability to do this aligned accurately with my observation of their participation as I floated between groups, so it was a good indicator of participation. It was also an incentive alerting students that they would need to contribute to the group if they were going to recap their contribution later! Things were improving.
Still, I wanted more detailed, constructive feedback from students to discussion leaders, as this was a meaningful opportunity for development in dialogue skills. I also found that students would often encourage one another, but rarely offer critical reflection on growth points. The following semester I upped the points to 2 for feedback to group leaders, and I found the quantity and quality of feedback taking off. A comment from a student also illuminated the ongoing issue of anxiety about impacting another student’s grade: she said she was afraid to say anything critical of her group leader, in case it would lower the separate grade she knew I was giving them for their group leadership. I made it a point to clarify to students that their feedback only reflected in their grade, not anyone else’s. Student feedback to one another continued to improve.
Our shift online for the pandemic brought another revelation: students typed far more in a review email after a discussion than they used to write by hand on a slip of paper given to them in class. Emojis also added to the warmth and expressiveness of the feedback they gave one another. And I no longer had to sort and distribute piles of paper; getting feedback to the right person was just a mouse click away. Writing a “review” of an experience is a familiar format for today’s social-media savvy students, and they slid easily into the new habit of doing this after their class discussions. Even when we return to campus, I plan to keep our discussion feedback in its online format.
Phase 4: Off and running
We have settled into a happy pattern where students consistently submit substantive, constructive peer evaluations of their discussion leaders. Both seasoned and newbie group leaders are able to hone their discussion leadership skills through a safe format for receiving feedback. Students are getting practice at contributing to a group dialogue, assessing their own contributions, and reflecting on the techniques used by their group leader. I have learned a valuable lesson about getting on the right side of student grade anxiety and social allegiances. I believe everyone has grown from this experience.