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Software enhances critical thinking through peer-assessment

The ability to think about something critically, organize those thoughts and express them well is the hallmark of a first-rate educational experience. However, enabling students to fully develop those skills can be a challenge, especially in large modern classrooms.

It is a challenge that drove Steve Joordens, professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto Scarborough, to develop peerScholar. The internet-based educational software package he developed with PhD student Dwayne Pare seeks to enhance cognitive ability through peer-assessment and peer-feedback.

Finding effective ways to develop cognitive skills is important for any instructor of large entry level classes where it can be difficult to grade written assignments, let alone provide timely feedback. An introduction to psychology course for instance can rely entirely on multiple choice questions in assessing students, which is something Joordens laments.

“I wasn’t very good at multiple choice as an undergrad. I felt I was a good thinker, but not necessarily a good memorizer, and that memorizers were given an advantage. So I struggled with the idea, that even with very big classes, how could I get students writing?” he says.  

He hopes peerScholar can achieve just that. The program uses a formative assessment model by having students submit an assignment and then log in to read and rank five or six of the same assignments by anonymous peers. They provide positive comments while offering at least one piece of advice on how to improve the work. Students then log back on to read peer comments and ratings, using that input to improve their final written product before submitting it for a final assessment by the TA or instructor.

The assignment grade is based on the richness in which they commented on their peers’ work, how they reviewed feedback to improve on their own work as well as the overall quality of the final product.  

“In a normal situation a student will write something, go away and come back after waiting eons to receive a grade with some comments. Sometimes that’s their whole learning experience,” says Joordens.

On the other hand peer assessment can provide a very powerful learning experience. “When you ask them to analyze the work of their peers and put it into words they get a palpable sense of the quality of their own work,” he adds.

While peer assessment systems have been used in the past, the problem with many is the logistical issues of administering the assignments. The hope is that through peerScholar those issues can be addressed by offering an easy to use system that provides both anonymous and instant feedback on written assignments.

More importantly, it also combines peer-assessment with self-assessment. The ability to not only reflect on comments made by peers but then revise and resubmit is a crucial aspect of the process, notes Joordens.

“This model allows students to help each other. We have students literally trying to help other students get a better mark, which is really nice because it gives everyone a reason to buy into the process. They feel if they work hard to help a fellow student they can expect it in return and that’s going to help improve the quality of their work,” he says.

Work on the recent commercial version of the software began with Pearson Canada more than four years ago and is currently being beta tested across Canada. The version available to Grades 8-12, called Cogneeto, is also being beta tested in classrooms across Canada. Meanwhile, it is available for free at U of T, with courses ranging from Astrophysics to Introduction Psychology currently using it.

While Joordens is encouraged by the response both in Canada and abroad, he says his ultimate goal is see students who use peerScholar hone their cognitive skills and become fluent in the art of critical thinking.


© University of Toronto Scarborough