The Importance of Peer Feedback in Online Education

Ertmer, P. A., Richardson, J. C., Belland, B., Camin, D., Connolly, P., Coulthard, G., et al. (2007). Using peer feedback to enhance the quality of student online postings: An exploratory study. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 12(2), 412-433.

The importance of feedback to students in education is a known factor, yet the research of how feedback impacts the online learner is something Ertmer and colleagues (2007) find little studied. In their article, Using Peer Feedback to Enhance the Quality of Student Online Postings: An Exploratory Study, Ertmer et. al (2007) sought to investigate the impact peer feedback has on both the overall quality of student posts and on their perceptions of the value of both giving and receiving feedback as part of an online class.

To frame their need for a study, Ertmer et. al (2007) presented a literature review. Feedback, they note, serves to help the learner evaluate their knowledge and can assist them in altering their viewpoints when presented new information. To do this, good feedback, according to the authors,  should help to “clarify what a good performance is” for the learner, assist the learner in developing their ability for “self-reflection and assessment,” help the learner gain “high quality information” about their learning, focus faculty-student interactions towards learning, increase motivation and self-esteem for the learner, help the learner “close the gap” between current performance and their final performance goals, and assist the educator in accessing information towards improving the quality of teaching (Ertmer et. al. 2007, 413-414). When it comes to online education, Ertmer and colleagues (2007) emphasized how instructor feedback can act “as a catalyst for student learning” and argue that, to be most effective, studies showed that online feedback should be timely, specific and consistent and can extend from formative to summative formats (p. 414). However, good feedback can overload the time and effort abilities of  the faculty member. To offset the increased workload good online feedback requires, Ertner and colleagues (2007) proposed investigating utilizing peer feedback as part of their instructional design. The advantages to this, they argued, is that it could increase the timeliness of feedback while helping the student to be part of the community of learners.  Studies summarized by Ertmer et. al (2007) indicate that the giving and receiving of feedback helps to increase collaborative meaning construction, increases the overall quality of discussions, and can give the learner greater “understanding and appreciation for their peers’ experiences and perspectives” (Ertmer et. al., 2007,p. 415). This, Ertmer et. al. (2007) can increase student motivation and satisfaction with a course and can increase learner autonomy. However, the authors also outlined that the literature indicates several drawbacks in using peer feedback. These included increasing student anxiety about participating in peer feedback, inexperience of students in providing quality peer feedback, and general negative perceptions about the overall quality of peer feedback.

Based on this information,  Ertmer et. al (2007) developed three research questions.These questions were (p. 416):

  1. What is the impact of peer feedback on the quality of students’ postings in an online environment? Can the quality of discourse/earning be maintained and/or increased through the use of peer feedback?
  2. What are students’ perceptions of the value of receiving peer feedback? how do these perceptions compare to the perceived value of receiving instructor feedback?
  3. What are students’ perceptions of the value of giving peer feedback?

To answer these which they utilized a case study of peer-feedback in a graduate level course. Within this course which ran a single semester, 15 students were required to post to weekly discussion questions and comment on the post of one classmate. For the first 6 weeks, only the course instructors provided feedback to each student. This feedback on their posts consisted of a numerical score relative to what level of Bloom’s taxonomy they demonstrated on their post, and overall comments regarding the quality of the posts made. After week six, students then were asked to provide feedback on two peers postings for each discussion using the same system as demonstrated by the faculty member earlier in the class. This feedback was moderated and collected by the faculty member, anonymized, and given to the posting student usually within two weeks of the original post deadline. The authors gathered qualitative and quantitative data from interviews with participants, scored ratings of the students’ weekly discussions, and the students’ pre- and post surveys.  The pre-surveys occurred at the end of the faculty feedback period and the post-survey following the end of the peer feedback perio. It is also worth noting that the authors opted not to use the students’ peer feedback scoring for their analysis as they felt there were inconsistency in scoring and instead two of the project researchers scored all the student posts and these were used to assess the first research question.

In evaluating the impact of peer feedback on the quality of student postings. Ertmer et. al (2007) compared the average scores on postings during the instructor feedback period (M=1.31) to that during the peer feedback period (M=1.33).  The data showed no significance difference in the quality of postings . Quality did not improve or decrease when compared between the forms suggesting that “peer feedback may be effective in maintaining quality…once a particular level of quality has been reached” (Ertmer et. al , 2007, p 421-422). These results were then compared to qualitative data from interviews conducted during the peer feedback period. Student interview responses, the authors argue, showed that students felt they used the peer feedback to improve their writing. In their discussion of their paper, the authors present that the lack of change in quality may be attributed to several factors including the variability in posting quality between required and optional posts (all of which were included in the tabulations), use of a limited post scoring system (two levels only), and discussion questions which were not designed intentionally to elicit higher-level analyses.

In evaluating the perception of the value of receiving peer versus instructor feedback as well the value of giving feedback, came from data of the pre- and post surveys as well as the interview responses. Overall the authors noted that students surveys showed a significant increase in the perceived importance of feedback from the start of the course to the end. But that overall feedback from the instructor was perceived as being more important than peer feedback at both the beginning and end of the course. Interview responses indicated to the authors that this may stem from student perceptions of the overall quality peer feedback and the belief that bias may be present in peer feedback. however despite this, students within the study did feel as if peer feedback was valued. This is reflected also in the fact that students valued giving and receiving feedback as part of their learning process. In discussing the greater perceived value for instructor feedback,  the authors noted that this was what was seen in other studies but that factors such as the up to two week delay in getting peer feedback (due to instructor intermediate processing) may have contributed to students perceiving this as being less timely and therefore of less value. In addition, concern about impact on grades (since peer feedback was incorporated into peer grades for the boards) may have also increased the anxiety associated with providing and receiving peer feedback.

In reflecting on the limitations of their study, the authors acknowledge the issues presented by a small study of relatively short duration and consider that future work should include more training for students on both the benefit of peer feedback and how to effectively rate peers feedback.  From this the authors conclude that feedback in general is of value in online courses and that, based on interview, students valued and learned from peer feedback even if their perceived of instructor feedback as being more important. They wrapped up their paper, by providing some general recommendations faculty could consider when trying to implement peer feedback in their online courses.

In examining this work, the use of both qualitative and quantitative data to reflect on three specific research questions was well situated.  The fact that this is an exploratory study suggests the authors are seeking to improve upon the general development of assessing feedback. Given this, there were several aspects of the study which were problematic which I think could be better addressed in future studies. In considering the impact of feedback, the fact that feedback was delayed in reaching the recipient (for up to two weeks) makes one question how much was the actual scoring of posts a measurement of the impact of the feedback the student received from peers (since these were delayed) versus the general progress of the student in developing their own self-regulating abilities after having received faculty feedback for the first five weeks of the term. Secondly, in reflecting on the discussion question design, the author’s noted that issues of construction may have limited how much students were prompted to approach the higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy in their responses since many of the questions “were not particularly conducive to high-level responses” Ertmer et. al , 2007, p 426).  I would have liked to have seen a breakdown data between the differing discussions to see if perhaps there is a pattern that is being lost due to some underperforming questions. In addition, when reflecting on use of feedback and the scoring system, the authors assumed familiarity with using Bloom’s taxonomy  given their study population but, given that several indicated problems in using the system to score posts, there may be underlying population variations which could perhaps be impacting their data. Overall I would be interested in seeing if a expanded version of this study addressing the limitations noted by the authors and above could be applied to a larger population of undergraduates to see if these patterns hold true to lower level students.

 

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