Traditionally assignments are graded and students only get one go. There’s a place for that but it doesn’t encourage students to reflect on their own work and learn from each otherDr Saskia Glas, Assistant Professor Sociology
To Enable Active Learning Through Peer Feedback
Passive learning—learning that is heavily tutor-led with students absorbing and making sense of information presented to them—helps to build a foundation of knowledge. However, most courses benefit from active learning that uses a range of methods to encourage students to question, assess and interact with each other to deepen their understanding of a topic.
This was the aim of a module of Radboud’s Sociology course in September-October 2021 as Dr Saskia Glas, Radboud’s assistant professor sociology, explains: “It’s my goal that students think for themselves, draw their own conclusions, weigh up arguments and reflect. That is active, deep thinking, the kind I would like students to develop throughout their education.”
Dr Glas recognised that students benefit from critiquing each other’s work, providing feedback and learning from each other’s experiences.
“Traditionally assignments are graded, and students only get one go,” adds Dr Glas. “There’s a place for that, of course, but it doesn’t encourage students to reflect on their own work and learn from each other.”
Instead of setting three or four assignments in a six-to-eight-week course, Dr Glas set one assignment that students would work on iteratively, using each other’s feedback to build on their work. This, Dr Glas describes, would help students learn how to give and receive feedback, think critically about their work, assess the feedback they were given and decide how to use it to improve.
Technology is a medium. It should amplify what you’re trying to do through learning goals and objectives and make this understandable for students. Technology is intertwined with the message and learning outcomes.Dr Saskia Glas, Assistant Professor Sociology
Discussion Groups Implemented In Brightspace
Dr Glas considered a range of ways to facilitate peer feedback and spoke to teaching support staff about her vision. Radboud University has used Brightspace since 2018 and so students were familiar with the learning platform. Accordingly, Dr Glas explored how Brightspace functionality could help deliver active learning.
“I didn’t want a student to just read a peer’s assignment
and come up with the first thing that crossed their mind in class,” says Dr Glas. “I wanted them to really think about it; to prepare written feedback they could share. There were a range of platforms I could use; I opted for Brightspace.”
The Sociology master’s degree cohort comprised around 50 students. Each was put into a group, comprising three or four students. This was an ideal size as it was small enough to encourage everyone’s involvement but large enough to manage student absences and other disruptions. Also, at any one time, at least one student would be neither giving nor receiving feedback and could moderate what was being discussed and check that feedback was constructive.
Dr Glas set up discussion forums in Brightspace and assigned a group to each. Assignments were shared with members of each group, who provided text-based feedback through the discussion forum.
Dr Glas was able to observe the feedback that was exchanged, the level of each student’s engagement and how the process was working.
This insight meant that tweaks could be made to optimise future outcomes. As Dr Glas explains: “I noted a few things for improvement for next time, such as guiding students to critically engage with feedback. They were inclined to take, and implement, all feedback. Instead, I encourage them to engage, to question if they should act and, if they decide not to, to ask themselves if the point raised nevertheless provides food for thought as to how they could improve.”
The results were very good. Assignments were better thought through and deeper learning had taken place.”Dr Saskia Glas, Assistant Professor Sociology
Improved Assignments And Student Reflection
Peer feedback resulted in higher quality student assignments compared to those from the year before.
“The results were very good,” says Dr Glas. “Assignments were better thought through and deeper learning had taken place. The students found it valuable and felt they really delved into the assignment.”
Dr Glas also noted that students reflected more on their own work, and that having assignments for longer and being able to develop them contributed to learning outcomes.
Brightspace provided an ideal environment for sharing written feedback and interacting. Dr Glas noted it was very intuitive for students and that they responded to each other well.
The platform also supported Dr Glas in her role as tutor, overseeing the process: “You have to stay involved. A very helpful feature in Brightspace is the student view, where you can see what it will look like for students, and the capability to monitor students’ work and feedback from the position of coach.”
Dr Glas reflects that, in small groups, students find their voices, making interesting points and better arguments than when they are in class answering questions from the tutor. She acknowledges that it can be scary for students to give feedback that it’s easier to have the tutor tell them what to do—but that figuring things out for themselves is incredibly valuable: “Students are hesitant at first because they’re not sure if their feedback is right but that’s not the point. The point isn’t to give the same feedback I would, it is to open people’s eyes up to looking at their own work critically. As a teacher, you must support students while they get there.”
The Social Sciences faculty at Radboud University set out to facilitate constructive peer feedback to help students develop through active learning. Brightspace provided an ideal environment through which students could share, evaluate and debate their assignments, resulting in a positive learning experience and improved results.