Investigating the use of peer and self-assessment to improve pupils’
performance when writing about historical sources
Aims of the project
The overall aim of the project was to introduce pupils to self and peer assessment techniques to encourage them to improve the quality of their written work about historical sources. We were particularly interested to know:
; what are the techniques that can be used to promote peer and self assessment?;
; do the techniques associated with self and peer assessment improve the pupils’
ability to identify a good piece of work?
; are pupils able, as a result of their identification of good work, to understand what
they need to do in order to demonstrate achievement?
; does encouraging pupils to use techniques of self and peer assessment lead to an
improvement in the quality of their written work and their understanding of historical
; in what ways do I need to modify my professional practice in order to teach
successfully in light of the findings to the above questions?
The research involved two history teachers from different secondary schools collaborating. The study was conducted over a period of one academic year. A class of 27 mixed ability year 7 pupils were the subjects of my research while my colleague worked with a sample group of 15 year 8 pupils who were regarded in her school as achieving at a level that was below average.
Summary of main findings
Following the introduction of a range of self and peer assessment strategies for use in the history classroom:
; pupils’ perceptions of the purpose of assessment began to change;
; the pupils began to recognise what made a good piece of work; and
; the quality of pupils’ written work began to improve.
The research also highlighted the following general issues:
; working in collaboration with a teacher from another school and as part of a network
was beneficial to our own professional development; and
; there was a need to go beyond the employment of isolated techniques to do with self
and peer assessment to embrace a wider strategy for assessment for learning. That
broad approach helped to make the experience meaningful to pupils and to enhance
the learning that took place.
The project was initiated as part of the Network Learning Community Assessment for Learning strategy. Teachers from the City of York were asked to apply to take part in paired research projects. I was introduced to my research partner through this scheme.
I teach at Millthorpe School. This is a LEA 11-16 comprehensive school with 1000 pupils on roll. It is situated in the centre of York. My colleague teaches at Huntington School. Her school is a LEA 11-18 comprehensive school of 1200 pupils located on the northern fringes of the city. Both schools have similar catchment areas serving families of above average socio-economic status. The pupils within the History Departments of Millthorpe and Huntington normally achieve GCSE A-C pass rates which are above the national average. One KS3 class from each school was involved in the project over a period of one academic year.
We felt that many pupils had an unrealistic view about their own ability and level of progress. This was very noticeable when they completed their end of year record of achievement sheets. We decided to focus on self and peer assessment because we felt that these approaches would help generate more meaningful and beneficial perspectives. I also wanted to explore the learning that was or was not taking place in my classroom.
Teaching processes and strategies
My research partner and I decided to concentrate on the same aspect of assessment for learning i.e. self and peer assessment. This was focused on pupils’ understanding of historical sources in my classroom and causation in my research partner's classroom. Adaptations were made to the work taking place in our individual schools to suit the contexts and classes involved.
I began by interviewing pupils about their ideas about assessment. I concentrated in particular on their perceptions of the purposes of assessment and what sorts of assessment they believed to be useful.
I then set up a series of history lessons, for a mixed ability year 7 group, which were all based on comparing historical sources.
I told the pupils in general terms about what they should do in order to write high quality answers to the questions that had been set. After completing the written task pupils in pairs marked each other’s work using a traffic light mark scheme that I had provided. This involves
using three different colours (red, amber, green) used against a set of criteria by students to show how well they had achieved during the task. As a result of their marking pupils set targets for improvement that could be applied to a future piece of work.
After discussion with my research partner and with pupils we modified the materials being used. In order to avoid using too many pieces of paper, pupils would complete their traffic light marking by underlining key features directly onto their own completed work. We aimed to help pupils better understand the assessment criteria by allowing the learners to establish the targets in child friendly language. We also aimed to develop a more inclusive approach by concentrating on fewer criteria for some less able pupils.
We then set up another series of lessons. This time we allowed the pupils to be more independent in a three-stage process:
; pupils marked a piece of work together, annotating it to show what made it good; ; pupils established their own ‘golden rules’ about what should be included in a good piece
of work; and
; pupils completed a piece of written work and assessed it using the golden rules, making
comments directly onto their own work.
I then interviewed a sample of pupils about what we had done, asking for their perceptions of traffic light marking and the process of self-assessment.
I found that pupils seemed to regard assessment broadly as an experience whose purpose was fundamentally summative. The process of assessment was perceived as a means by which they could be informed of how well or badly they had managed to carry out the tasks set by the teachers. Thus assessment was something done by an expert. They had little insight into the process and no control over the outcome other than trying, in a context in which they were ill informed, to do what the teacher had demanded. It had little or no perceived function in relation to learning; rather it was a seen as a system of assigning status, of giving or witholding reward. This perspective leads to pupils looking only at the mark or grade awarded and ignoring any written or oral comments that were made by the teacher.
We consider that we were able to raise standards of achievement for pupils by using the following techniques:
; sharing the broad learning objectives with the pupils;
; keeping the broad learning objectives clearly in focus by reminding pupils of them at
various points. This will allow pupils to know what it is that they are trying to achieve; ; giving pupils specific success criteria that mean something to them. Those criteria should
be written in language that pupils understand; and
; allowing pupils to assist in generating the success criteria as a group (and using their own
language to do so) was more helpful and meaningful than simply telling the pupils the
These techniques were linked to the following learning outcomes:
; pupils were able to reflect upon the processes of learning and assessment and were able
to recognise what made a good piece of work;
; pupils were able to assess their own work appropriately. That is, pupils were able to
identify what they could do and also what needed to be improved;
; pupils were able to review and reflect upon their own work by using techniques of self and
peer assessment; and
; the use of self and peer assessment techniques helped pupils to achieve higher
standards This success was indicated by pupils being able orally to state at least three
assessment criteria that would need to be satisfied when completing a comparison of
sources question in history. We also noted that pupils were able to talk in a more
confident manner about the similarities and differences between sources. Lastly we found
that pupils written work had a much clearer structure and pupils were able to provide
examples in their answers and to give supporting evidence for the arguments that they
We found the following outcomes in relation to pupils’ views about their learning:
; the confidence of the pupils in their own ability was enhanced;
; pupils saw assessment as a process in which they can legitimately have some
; pupils believed that their involvement in the assessment process can be beneficial in
relation to their academic achievements; and
; pupils believed that pupils of all abilities can improve.
We found the following outcomes in relation to our own professional development:
; self and peer assessment has opened up a dialogue between the pupils and ourselves
about the learning that is taking place and the learning that could take place;
; the process of collaboration with another teacher and another school has been
worthwhile by allowing for experimentation, discussion and dissemination; and ; involvement in the wider learning network has provided fresh opportunities for
Throughout the above runs a common thread of a need to focus explicitly on the nature of pupils’ learning as opposed to concentrating exclusively on my teaching.
The methods used to collect data were qualitative. During the course of the project my partner and I visited each other’s classrooms twice. Data were collected through video recording and observation of lessons taught. For example we observed and recorded by video the instances when peer and self-assessment techniques were used in the classroom. Following each observation we met to discuss and analyse the data that had been gathered and then made further refinements to work to be carried out subsequently.
Evidence was also based on:
; written work produced by pupils;
; pupils’ comments on their role as assessors (recorded by means of a video and notes
made during and after the lesson);
; pupils’ comments on the process of assessment; and
; interviews with the pupils.
Reflections on the evidence that emerged from the research indicated that it was important to focus on the way pupils learn and not just how I teach. I became aware that a range of peer and self assessment methods were needed in the general approach to assessment for learning, and that there was not a one size fits all assessment model. In other words I had learned through the collaborative work in 2 schools that learning needs to be the key focus of my work; that pupils could become involved successfully in setting targets and contributing to their own development and that a range of methods had to be used differentially. I wish to avoid in future notions that suggest that assessment is principally concerned with identifying outcomes by experts for summative purposes. Different learners need to be allowed to engage with the process of learning in ways that are appropriate to their own stage of development with my assistance. The nature of that assistance will be structured and rigorous but it must also be flexible and dynamic.
Suggestions for further reading
Black, P. and William, D (1999) Inside the Black Box. Raising Standards Through Classroom Assessment. (Kings College London)
Black, P. and William, D. et al (2002) Working Inside the Black Box. Assessment for Learning in the classroom (Kings College London)
Dann, R. (2002) Promoting Assessment as Learning. (London)
Askew, S (ed.) (2000) Feedback for Learning, (London)
Author and contact details