By Cait Etherington June 30, 2018
Cait Etherington: Why did you found Peergrade? Did you have a background in tech or education or both?
David Kofoed Wind: Back in 2014, I was teaching a class called “Computational Tools for Data Science” with around 20 students at The Technical University of Denmark. I was teaching this class as part of my work as a Ph.D. student in machine learning. Ph.D. students are not required to teach their own courses, but I love teaching. The following semester I changed the title to “Computational Tools for Big Data” and the title change combined with a bit of promotion to the students made the enrollment numbers go from 20 to 150 students. With 150 students submitting 10 submissions per semester, the burden of grading becomes completely unfeasible: 150 students with 10 submissions of 10 pages over 13 weeks equals 1153 pages/week. My colleagues proposed that I should just go to a multiple choice exam, which is a growing trend, but I think what makes my course great is the number of open-ended assignments the students have to solve, and those are not fitting for a multiple choice exam. In order to deal with the burden of grading and make the course better, I decided to build Peergrade. It was originally just thought of as a side-project, but is now a business.
CE: In my experience, most students are quite resistant to peer feedback at first. Why do you think students don’t really want to engage in peer feedback?
DFW: Giving peer feedback is hard and that is why it is such a formative process. Everyone is trying to make learning fun, and while a large part of that agenda is great I also feel like there is a need to accept that learning happens when you do something that you can’t do. The first reason that peer feedback is tricky is that students don’t have much training in giving great feedback (which is exactly why it is so important!). Secondly, there are always a lot of social dynamics at play in a classroom, and peer feedback is clearly a social activity. Students will get better at giving and receiving feedback over time, but in the beginning, it is important to help them feel safe in the process and scaffold as much as possible. If you look at the different papers around the student perception of peer feedback you find very varying results. Half of the papers report that students feel uncomfortable during the activity, and the other half report that students are very happy. The simplest interpretation of this is that teachers play a large role in making students enjoy and learn from the peer review process.
CE: How does Peergrade overcome student resistance to peer feedback?
DFW: The essence of getting students to buy into the process is about making students feel safe and about empowering students to write great feedback to each other. To make students feel safe we have different features, some very simple and others relatively complex. In most cases, peer feedback in Peergrade is given anonymously (both ways), and this ensures that students can be fair in their feedback without being afraid of social consequences. Flagging allows students to mark feedback that they disagree with for teacher moderation, and this acts as a form of safety valve for students that are unsure about the process. To ensure that students write great feedback it is important that teachers provide a great feedback rubric that students can use to write good feedback. An example of a simple but effective question is “Find a great paragraph in the submission and explain why it is great.” A question like this will require students to be specific, and you can’t get away with just writing “your language is great.”
CE: What do educators like about Peergrade, and how does it enhance their work in the classroom?
DFW: I have a lot of testimonials from actual teachers using Peergrade. One educator recently told me, “Peergrade allows me to track my students’ growth while getting to know precisely their strengths and weaknesses overall. It has allowed me to differentiate my instruction based on my students’ needs, and it has also allowed me to better group my students by ability for cooperative learning.” But Peergrade also enables educators to redirect their energy to more important tasks. Another recent note I received from an educator explained, “Instead of a lot of repetitive work I can direct my energy towards describing typical errors for students to be aware of. This is so much more challenging and inspiring than traditional grading. Furthermore, the students are forced to put a little effort into the necessary post-treatment of their own work.”
Generally, teachers mention many different reasons for using Peergrade. The most mentioned are that peer review leads to students reflecting more about their work, that it allows them to improve on drafts before submitting to the teacher, that it saves time for teachers, that it is an engaging activity, and that students can learn a lot from each other.
CE: Have you completed any evidence-based studies to demonstrate Peergrade’s effectiveness and impact on learning? What have these studies revealed?
DFW: We have not done our own studies, but luckily a lot of great researchers have done work on this problem for many years and this research certainly shows the value of peer feedback. One great study is this report showing that peer review leads to a 30% increase in results, but there are also very qualitative studies such this study showing that the act of producing peer reviews offers students skills that one can’t easily offer based on teacher feedback alone.
CE: What’s next for Peergrade? How do you plan to scale your business over the next five years?
DFW: For some people it looks like Peergrade is done, and that we are just fixing small things here and there. In reality, we have just begun our work and over the next years, we will launch a number of great features and additions to Peergrade. When looking at the market today there is a clear gap when it comes to learning tools that teachers can use every day. Learning management systems are just management systems, and assessment systems are focused on grades and end-of-the-year tests. We know that most of the learning happens during the year, and we are building the place where that learning can happen
To learn about Peergrade, visit the Peergrade homepage.