Peer Evaluations: Team-Based Learning for Art Historians

[This post has been long in the making…]

An important component of team-based learning, or TBL, is the peer evaluations. While TBL has many similarities to the “flipped classroom,” one of the main differences is that TBL factors peer evaluations into students’ final grades. There are plenty of good sources that discuss the process of peer evaluations, so I will only describe them briefly here. I want to focus on what happened in my classes–in other words, I want to provide some first hand accounts of the pros and cons of the peer evaluation process.

The Peer Evaluation in a nutshell

The peer evaluation typically occurs at the end of the semester. Each member of a given team evaluates the other members based on specific criteria that you’ve provided. Some other TBLers like to use a more quantitative approach, which might involve assigning points to each member, while others use a more qualitative approach, which might be based on responses to questions. Still others find a combination of the two works best. Regardless of what your questionnaire looks like, the purpose of the peer evaluation is to receive feedback from each member about their teammates. Basically, they are deciding if their teammates pulled their weight within the team overall. Those who did are going to be rewarded; those who did not will be marked lower in the process.

I have students complete peer evaluation at the midterm. While I do not grade these ones, it allows me to give each student feedback from their teammates on how they might improve and what they are doing well. This also helps to prepare students for the peer evaluation that “counts.”

My experiences with peer evaluations

Most of you can probably imagine the range of emotions and responses you will receive. I always have 1-2 students who feel profoundly uncomfortable with the peer evaluation process, claiming it is too judgmental and mean. Other students might feel awkward, but they will still complete it. The remaining students seem complacent, not caring one way or the other.

I have found that it is really important to mention the peer evaluations in the first week of class and to discuss why they are useful and significant. I’ve noticed that I need to use precise language to describe them. For instance, I can’t just say “Do it.” I think students are most receptive to this new process when I describe the peer evaluations as a way to provide helpful feedback to teammates–to tell them where they shine–and to offer suggestions for how they might benefit the team. If a student is shy, for example, a teammate might think of ways to encourage them to speak up. If a student doesn’t do the readings, the peer evaluation offers students the chance to ask this unprepared student to . . . be more prepared. This is why the midterm peer evaluations are so helpful–students have the chance to improve over the second half of the semester.

Most students will improve after the midterm peer evaluations. There have been 1-2 in each class that won’t, but in general each student will begin to improve in some small way. I can see it in action during class. It is remarkable to watch. Final evaluations typically reflect these changes.

Overall, students are not mean on their peer evaluations. There are always a few that need to be vetted for insensitive or colorful language–I read between the lines and paraphrase in these instances.

For those students who feel the whole process is awful, cruel, and judgmental, I try to be understanding and empathetic. Peer evaluations are scary! And for students who have never had to write one before, they are even more dreadful seeming. I try to compare the process to real world situations. Perhaps students are familiar with evaluations in the work force. I mention the evaluation process for tenure-track faculty; they always notice each semester when someone watches my course. What they don’t know–and I tell them–is that I too get evaluated all the time.

In the end, the vast majority of students adjust to this new and likely uncomfortable process. They realize that the peer evaluation process also holds them accountable all semester, which of course is the whole point. Students aren’t just accountable to me, but to each other. This is a wonderful component of TBL, and as students take their second TBL course they too realize how important the process is for their team’s success.

I’m happy to share my peer evaluation forms with anyone who would like to see them. Feel free to contact me.

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