Tag Archives: Research Reviews

Evaluating a cMOOC using Downes’ four “process conditions”

This is the third in a series of posts on a research project I’m developing on evaluating cMOOCs. The first can be found here, and the second here. In this post I consider an article that uses Downes’ four process conditions” for a knowledge-generating network to evaluate a cMOOC. In a later post I’ll consider another article that takes a somewhat critical look at these four conditions as applied to cMOOCs.

Mackness, J., Mak, S., & Williams, R. (2010). The ideals and reality of participating in a MOOC. In Proceedings of the 7th International Conference on Networked Learning 2010 (pp. 266–275). Retrieved from http://eprints.port.ac.uk/5605/

Connexion, Flickr photo by tangi_bertin, licensed CC-BY

In this article, Mackness et al. report findings from interviews of participants in the CCK08 MOOC (Connectivism and Connective Knowledge 2008; see here for a 2011 version of this course) insofar as these relate to Downes’ four process conditions for a knowledge-generating network: autonomy, diversity, openness, interactivity. In other words, they wanted to see if these conditions were met in CCK08, according to the participants. To best understand these results, if you’re not familiar with Downes’ work, it may be helpful to read an earlier post of mine that addresses and tries to explain these conditions.

Specifically, the researchers asked: “To what extent were autonomy, diversity, openness and connectedness/interactivity a reality for participants in the CCK08 MOOC and how much they were affected by the course design?” (271). They concluded that, in this particular course at least, there were difficulties with all of these factors.


Data for this study came from 22 responses by participants (including instructors) to email interview questions (out of 58 who had self-selected, on a previous survey sent to 301 participants, to be interviewed). Unfortunately, the interview questions are not provided in the paper, so it’s hard to tell what the respondents were responding to. I find it helpful to see the questions so as to better understand the responses given, and be able to undertake a critical review of the interpretation of those responses given in an article.



The researchers note that most respondents valued autonomy in a learning environment: “Overall, 59% of interview respondents (13/22) rated the importance of learner autonomy at 9 or 10 on a scale of 1-10 (1 = low; 10 = high)” (269). Unfortunately, I can’t tell if this means they valued the kind of autonomy they experienced in that particular course, or whether they valued the general idea of learner autonomy in an abstract way (but how was it defined?). Here is one place, for example, where providing the question asked would help readers understand the results.

Mackness et al. then argue that nevertheless, some participants (but how many out of the 22?) found the experience of autonomy in CCK08 to be problematic. The researchers provided quotes from two participants stating that they would have preferred more structure and guidance, and one course instructor who reported that learner autonomy led to some frustration that what s/he was trying to say or do in the course was not always “resonating with participants” (269).

The authors also provide a quote from a course participant who said they loved being able to work outside of assessment guidelines, but then comment on that statement by saying that “autonomy was equated with lack of assessment”–perhaps, but not necessarily (maybe they could get good feedback from peers, for example? Or maybe the instructors could still assess something outside of the guidelines? I don’t know, but the statement doesn’t seem to mesh, by itself, with the interpretation).  Plus, the respondent saw this as a positive thing, whereas the rhetorical aspects of the interpretation suggest it was a negative, a difficulty with autonomy. I’m not seeing that.

The researchers conclude that the degree of learner autonomy in the course was affected by the following:

levels of fluency in English, the ‘expertise divide’, assessment for credit participants, personal learning styles, personal sense of identity and the power exerted, either implicitly or explicitly, by instructors through their communications, status and reputation, or by participants themselves….” (271)

In addition, there were reports of some “trolling” behaviour on the forums, which led some participants to “retreat to their blogs, effectively reducing their autonomy” (271). The authors point out that some constraint on autonomy in the forums through discouraging or shutting down such behaviour may have actually promoted autonomy amongst more learners.


The researchers note that learner diversity was certainly present in the course, including diversity in geography, language, age, and background. They give examples of diversity “reflected in the learning preferences, individual needs and choices expressed by interview respondents” (269).

However, diversity was also a problem in at least one respect, namely that not all learners had the “skills or disposition needed to learn successfully, or to become autonomous learners in a MOOC” (271). This is not so much of a problem if there is significant scaffolding, such as support for participants’ “wayfinding in large online networks,” but CCK08 was instead designed to have “minimal instructor intervention” (271). In addition, in order to promote sharing in a network like a cMOOC, there needs to be a certain amount of trust built up, the authors point out; and the more large and diverse the network, the more work may need to be done to help participants build that trust.


CCk08 was available, for free, to anyone who wanted to participate (without receiving any university or other credits), so long as they had a reliable web connection. The interview data suggests that participants interpreted “openness” differently: some felt they should (and did) share their work with others (thus interpreting openness as involving sharing one’s work), some worked mostly alone and did not do much or any sharing–thereby interpreting openness, the author suggest, merely as the idea that the course was open for anyone with a reliable web connection to participate in. The authors seem to be arguing here that these differing conceptions of openness are problematic because there was an “implicit assumption in the course was that participants would be willing or ready to give and receive information, knowledge, opinions and ideas; in other words to share freely” (270), but that not everyone got that message. They point to a low rate of active participation: only 14% of the total enrolled participants (270).

They also note that amongst participants there was no “common understanding of openness as a characteristic of connectivism” (270), implying that there should have been. But I wonder if conscious understanding of openness, and the ability to express that as a clear concept, is necessary for a successful connectivist course. This is just a question at this point–I haven’t thought it through carefully. I would at least have liked to have seen more on why that should be considered a problem, as well as whether the respondents were asked specifically for their views of openness. The responses given in this section of the paper don’t refer to openness at all, making me think perhaps the researchers interpreted understandings of openness from one or more of the other things respondents said. That’s not a problem by itself, of course, but one might have gotten different answers if one had asked them their views of openness directly, and answers that might have been therefore more relevant to concluding whether or not participants shared a common understanding of openness.

Finally, Mackness et al. argue that some of the barriers noted above also led to problems in regard to participants’ willingness to openly communicate and share work with others: this can be “compromised by lack of clarity about the purpose and nature of the course, lack of moderation in the discussion forums, which would be expected on a traditional course, and the constraints (already discussed in relation to autonomy and diversity) under which participants worked” (272).


 There were significant opportunities for interaction, for connecting with others, but the authors note that what is most important is not whether people did connect with others (and how much) as what these connections made possible. Respondents noted some important barriers to connecting as well as problems that meant some of the interactions did not yield useful benefits. As noted above, some participants pointed to “trolling” behaviour on the forums, and one said there were some “patronising” posts as well–which, the respondent said, likely led some participants to disengage from that mode of connection. Another respondent noted differences in expertise levels that led him/her to disengage when s/he could no longer “understand the issues being discussed” (271).

The researchers conclude that connectivity alone is not sufficient for effective interactivity–which of course makes sense–and that the degree of effective interactivity in CCK08 was not as great as it might have been with more moderation by instructors. However, the size of the course made this unfeasible (272).

One thing I would have liked to have seen in this analysis of “interactivity” is what Downes focuses on for this condition, namely the idea that the kind of interactivity needed is that which promotes emergent knowledge–knowledge that emerges from the interactions of the network as a whole, rather than from individual nodes (explained by Downes here and here, the first of which the authors themselves cite). This is partly because if they used Downes’ framework, it would make sense to evaluate the course with the specifics of what he means by “interactivity.” It’s also partly because I just really want to see how one might try to evaluate that form of interactivity.


Mackness et al. conclude that

some constraints and moderation exercised by instructors and/or learners may be necessary for effective learning in a course such as CCK08. These constraints might include light touch moderation to reduce confusion, or firm intervention to prevent negative behaviours which impede learning in the network, and explicit communication of what is unacceptable, to ensure the ‘safety’ of learners. (272)

Though, at the same time, they point to the small size of their sample, and the need for further studies of these sorts of courses to validate their findings.

That makes sense to me, from my unstudied perspective of someone who has participated in a few large and one small-ish open online courses, one of which seemed modeled to some degree along connectivist lines (ETMOOC). There was some significant scaffolding in ETMOOC, through starting off with discussions of connected learning and help with blogging and commenting on blogs. There wasn’t clear evidence of moderating discussions from the course collaborators (several people collaborated on each two-week topic, acting in the role of “instructors” for a brief time), except insofar as some of the course collaborators were very actively present on Twitter and in commenting on others’ blogs, being sure to tweet or retweet or bookmark to Diigo or post to Google+ especially helpful or thought-provoking things. We didn’t have any trolling behaviour that I was aware of, and we also didn’t have a discussion forum. But IF there were problems in the Google+ groups or in Twitter chats, I would have hoped one or more of the collaborators would have actively worked to address them (and I think they would have, though of course since it didn’t happen (to my knowledge) I can’t be certain).

Some further thoughts 

If one decides that Downes’ framework is the right one to use for evaluating an open online course like a cMOOC (which I haven’t decided yet; I still need to look more carefully at his arguments for it), it would make sense to unpack the four conditions more carefully and collect participants’ views on whether those specific ways of thinking about autonomy, diversity, openness and interactivity were manifested in the course. The discussion of these four conditions is at times rather vague here. What, more specifically, does learner “autonomy” mean, for example? Even if they don’t want to use Downes’ own views of autonomy, it would be helpful to specify what conception of autonomy they’re working with. I’ve also noted a similar point about interactivity, about which the discussion in the paper is also somewhat vague–what sort of interactivity would have indicated success, exactly, beyond just participants communicating with each other on blogs or forums?

I find it interesting that in his most recent writing on the topic of evaluating cMOOCs (see the longer version attached to this post, and my discussion of this point here (and the helpful comments I’ve gotten on that post!)), Downes argues that it should be some kind of expert in cMOOCs or in one of the fields/topics they cover that evaluates their quality, while here the authors looked to the participants’ experiences. Interesting, because it makes sense to me to actually focus on the experiences of the participants rather than to ask someone who may or may not have taken the course. That is, if one wants to find out if the course was effective for participants.

Still, I can see how some aspects of these conditions might be measured without looking at what participants experienced, or at least in other ways in addition to gathering participants’ subjective evaluations. The degree to which the course is “open,” for example, might have some elements that could be measured beyond or in addition to what participants themselves thought. Insofar as openness involves the course being open to anyone with a reliable internet connection to participate, without cost, and the ability to move into and out of the course easily as participants choose, that could be partly a matter of looking at the design and platform of the course itself, as well as participants’ evaluations of how easy it was to get into and out of the course. If openness also involves the sharing of one’s work, one could look to see how much of that was actually done, as well as ask participants about what they shared, why, and how (and what they did not, and why).

I just find it puzzling that in that recent post Downes doesn’t talk about asking participants about their experiences in a cMOOC at all. I’m not sure why.

[I just read a recent comment on an earlier post, which I haven’t replied to yet, which discusses exactly this point–it makes no sense to leave out student experiences. Should have read and replied to that before finalizing this post!]



Summary of research on modes of peer assessment

I have been doing quite a few “research reviews” of articles on peer assessment–where I summarize the articles and offer comments about them. Lately I’ve been reading articles on different modes of peer assessment: written, oral, online, face to face, etc. And here, I am going to try to put together what that research has said to see if anything can really be concluded about these issues from it.

In what follows, I link to the blog posts discussing each article. Links to the articles themselves can be found at the bottom of this post.

I created PDF tables to compare/contrast the articles under each heading. They end up being pretty small here on the blog, so I also have links to each one of them, below.

Peer feedback via asynchronous, written methods or synchronous, oral, face to face methods

This is the dichotomy I am most interested in: is there a difference when feedback is given asynchronously, in a written form, or when given synchronously, as spoken word face to face? Does the feedback itself differ? Might one form of feedback be more effective than another in terms of being taken up in later revisions of essays?

Do the comments differ in the two modes of peer feedback, and are they used differently in later drafts?

The PDF version of the table below can be downloaded here.

van den Berg, Admiraal and Pilot (2006) looked at differences in what was said in peer feedback on writing assignments when it was written (on standardized peer feedback forms, used for the whole class) and when it was given in oral, face to face discussions. They found that written feedback tended to be more focused on evaluating the essays, saying what was good or bad about them, and less on giving explanations for those evaluative comments or on providing suggestions for revision (though this result differed between the courses they analyzed). In the oral discussions, there was more of a balance between evaluating content, explaining that evaluation, and offering revisions. They also found that both written and oral feedback focused more on content and style than on structure, though there were more comments on structure in the written feedback than in the oral. The authors note, though, that in the courses in which peer feedback took place on early drafts or outlines, there was more feedback on structure than when it took place on later drafts. They conclude: “A combination of written and oral feedback is more profitable than written or oral feedback only” (146).

Hewett (2000) looked at differences in peer feedback between an oral, face to face environment and an electronic, text-based environment. She found that the talk in the oral communication was much more interactive, with students responding to each others’ comments, giving verbal cues that they were following along, and also working together to generate new ideas. The text-based, online feedback was much less like a conversation, with students commenting on the papers at hand but not interacting very much with each other. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, while the feedback in the written environment was mostly focused on the content of the essay being evaluated, the discussion in the oral environment ranged more widely. Hewett also analyzed essay drafts and peer comments from both environments to see if the peer discussion and comments influenced later drafts of essays. She found that in the oral environment, there was more use in students’ work of ideas that came up in the peer discussion about others’ essays, or that one had oneself said. Hewett concludes that a combination of oral discussion and asynchronous, written comments would be good, using the former for earlier stages of writing–since in oral discussion there can be more talk in which students speculate about wider issues and work together to come up with new ideas–and the latter for revisions focused more on content.

What are students’ views of each mode?

A PDF version of the following table can be downloaded here.

Figl et al. (2006) surveyed students in a computer science course who had engaged in peer assessment of a software project in both the face to face mode as well as through an online, asynchronous system that allows for recording of criticisms as well as adding comments as in a discussion board. There wasn’t a clear preference for one mode over another overall, except in one sense: about half of the students preferred using the face to face mode for discussion within their own teams, and with their partner teams (those they are giving feedback to and receiving feedback from). There was not as much discussion of the feedback, whether within the team or with the partner teams, in the online format, students reported, and they valued the opportunity for that discussion. Figl et al. conclude that it would be best to combine online, asynchronous text reviews with face to face activities, perhaps even with synchronous chat or voice options.

The study reported in Guardardo & Shi 2007 focused on asynchronous, written feedback for the most part; the authors recorded online, discussion-board feedback on essays and compared that with a later draft of each essay. They wanted to know if students used or ignored these peer comments, and what they thought of the experience of receiving the asynchronous, written feedback (they interviewed each student as well). All of the students had engaged in face to face peer feedback before the online mode, but the face to face sessions were not recorded so the nature of the comments in each mode was not compared. Thus, the results from this study that are most relevant to the present concern are those that come from interviews, in which the students compared their experiences of face to face peer feedback with the online, written, asynchronous exchange of feedback. Results were mixed, as noted in the table, but quite a few students said they felt more comfortable giving feedback without their names attached, while a significant number of students preferred the face-to-face mode because it made interacting with the reviewer/reviewee easier. The authors conclude that “online peer feedback is not a simple alternative to face-to-face feedback and needs to be organized carefully to maximize its positive effect” (458).

Cartney 2010 held a focus group of ten first-year students in a social work course who had engaged in a peer feedback exercise in which essays and comments on essays, as well as follow up discussion, was to take place over email. Relevant to the present concern is that the focus group discussion revealed that several groups did not exchange feedback forms via email but decided to meet up in person instead in order to have a more interactive discussion. Some groups did exchange written, asynchronous, online feedback, citing discomfort with giving feedback to others to their “faces.” The author concludes that there may be a need to use more e-learning in curricula in order for students to become more accustomed to using it for dialogue rather than one-way communication. But I also see this as an indication that some students recognized a value in face to face, oral, synchronous communication.

Peer feedback via electronic, synchronous text-based chat vs. oral, face to face methods

This dichotomy contrasts two sorts of synchronous methods for peer feedback and assessment: those taking place online, through text-based systems such as “chats,” and those taking place face to face, orally.

Do comments given synchronously through text-based chats differ from those given orally, face to face? And do these two modes of commenting affect students’ revisions of work differently?

A PDF version of both of the tables below can be downloaded here.

Sullivan & Pratt 1996  looked at two writing classes: in one class all discussions and peer feedback took place through a synchronous, electronic, text-based chat system and in the other discussions and peer feedback took place face to face, orally. They found that writing ability increased slightly more for the computer-assisted class over the traditional class, and that there were differences in how the students spoke to each other in the electronic, text-based chat vs. face to face, orally. The authors stated that the face to face discussion was less focused on the essay being reviewed than in the online chats (but see my criticisms of this interpretation here). They also found that the electronic chats were more egalitarian, in that the author did not dominate the conversation in them in the same way as happened with the face to face chats. The authors conclude (among other things) that discussions through online chats may be beneficial for peer assessments, since their study “showed that students in the computer-assisted class gave more suggestions for revision than students in the oral class” (500), and since there was at least some evidence for greater writing improvement in the “chat” class.

Braine 2001 (I haven’t done an earlier summary of this article in my blog) looked at students in two different types of writing classes in Hong Kong (in English), similar to those discussed in Sullivan & Pratt (1996), in which one class has all discussions and peer assessment taking place orally, and the other has these taking place on a “Local Area Network” that allows for synchronous, electronic, text-based chats. He looked at improvement in writing between a draft of an essay and a revision of that essay (final version) after peer assessment. Braine was testing students’ ability to write in English only, through the “Test of Written English.” He found that students’ English writing ability improved a bit more for the face-to-face class than the computer-mediated class, and that there were significant differences in the nature of discussions in the two modes. He concluded that oral, face-to-face discussions are more effective for peer assessment.

Liu & Sadler 2003  contrasted two modes of peer feedback in two composition classes, one of which wrote comments on essays by hand and engaged in peer feedback orally, face to face, and the other wrote comments on essays digitally, through MS Word, and then engaged in peer discussion through an electronic, synchronous, text-based chat during class time. The authors asked about differences in these  modes of commenting, and whether they had a differential impact on later essay revisions. Liu & Sadler were not focused on comparing the asynchronous commenting modes with the synchronous ones, but their results show that there was a higher percentage of “global” comments in both of the synchronous modes, and a higher percentage of “local” comments in the asynchronous ones. They also found that there was a significantly higher percentage of “revision-oriented” comments in the oral discussion than in the electronic chat. Finally, students acted more often on the revision-oriented comments given in the “traditional” mode (handwritten, asynchronous comments plus oral discussion) than in the computer-mediated mode (digital, asynchronous comments plus electronic, text-based chat). They conclude that for asynchronous modes of commenting, using digital tools is more effective than handwriting (for reasons not discussed here), and for synchronous modes of commenting, face to face discussions are more effective than text-based, electronic chats (219-221). They suggest combining these two methods for peer assessment.

Jones et al 2006  studied interactions between peer tutors in an English writing centre in Hong Kong and their clients, both in face to face meetings and in online, text-based chats. This is different from the other studies, which were looking more directly at peer assessment in courses, but the results here may be relevant to what we usually think of as peer assessment. The authors were looking at interactional dynamics between tutors and clients, and found that in the face-to-face mode, the relationship between tutors and clients tended to be more hierarchical than in the electronic, online chat mode. They also found that the subjects of discussion were different between the two modes: the face-to-face mode was used most often for “text-based” issues, such as grammar and word choice, while in the electronic chats the tutors and clients spoke more about wider issues such as content of essays and process of writing. They conclude that since the two modes differ and both serve important purposes, it would be best to use both modes.


This set of studies is not the result of a systematic review of the literature; I did not follow up on all the other studies that cited these, for example. A systematic review of the literature might add more studies to the mix. In addition, there are more variables that should be considered (e.g., whether the students in the study underwent peer assessment training, how much/what kind; whether peer assessment was done using a standardized sheet or not in each study, and more).

Nevertheless, I would like to consider briefly if these studies provide any clarity for direction regarding written peer assessment vs. oral, face-to-face.

For written, asynchronous modes of peer assessment (e.g., writing on essays themselves, writing on peer assessment forms) vs. oral, face-to-face modes, the studies noted here (van den Berg, Admiraal and Pilot (2006) and Hewett (2000)) suggest that in these two modes students give different sorts of comments, and for a fuller picture peer assessment should probably be conducted in both modes. Regarding student views of both modes (Figl et al. (2006), Guardardo & Shi (2007), Cartney (2010)), evidence is mixed, but there are at least a significant number of students who prefer face-to-face, oral discussions if they have to choose between those and asynchronous, written peer assessment.

For written, synchronous modes of peer assessment (e.g., electronic, text-based chats) vs. oral, face-to-face, the evidence here is all from students for whom English is a foreign language, but some of the results might still be applicable to other students (to determine this would require further discussion than I can engage in now). All that can be said here is that the results are mixed. Sullivan & Pratt (1996) found some, but not a lot of evidence that students using e-chats improved their writing more than those using oral peer assessment, but Braine (2001) found the opposite. However, they were using different measures of writing quality. Sullivan & Pratt also concluded that the face-to-face discussions were less focused and effective than the e-chat discussions, while Braine concluded the opposite. This probably comes down in part to interpretation of what “focused” and “effective” mean.

Liu & Sadler (2003) argued that face-to-face modes of synchronous discussion are better than text-based, electronic, synchronous chats–opposing Sullivan & Pratt–because there was a higher percentage of “revision-oriented” conversational turns (as a % of total turns) in the face-to-face mode, and because students acted on the revision-oriented comments more in the traditional class (both writing comments on paper and oral, face-to-face peer discussion) than in the computer-mediated class (digital comments in MS Word and e-chat discussions). Jones et al. (2006) found that students and peer tutors talked about different types of things, generally, in the two modes and thus concluded that both should be used. But that study was about peer tutors and clients, which is a different situation than peer assessment in courses.

So really, little can be concluded, I think, from looking at all these studies, except that it does seem that students tend to say different types of things in different modes of communication (written/asynchronous, written/synchronous, oral/face-to-face/synchronous), and that those things are all valuable; so perhaps what we can say is that using a combination of modes is probably best.

Gaps in the literature

Besides more studies to see if better patterns can emerge (and perhaps they are out there–as noted above, my literature search has not been systematic), one gap is that no one, so far, has considered video chats, such as Google Hangouts, for peer assessment. Perhaps the differences between those and face-to-face meetings might not be as great as between face-to-face meetings and text-based modes (whether synchronous chats or asynchronous, written comments). And this sort of evidence might be useful for courses that are distributed geographically, so students could have a kind of face-to-face peer assessment interaction rather than just giving each other written comments and carrying on a discussion over email or an online discussion board. Of course, the problem there would be that face-to-face interactions are best if supervised, even indirectly, so as to reduce the risk of people treating each other disrespectfully, or offering criticisms that are not constructive.

So, after all this work, I’ve found what I had guessed before starting: it’s probably best to use both written, asynchronous comments and oral, face-to-face comments for peer assessment.


Works Cited

Braine, G. (2001) A study of English as a foreign language (EFL) writers on a local-area network (LAN) and in traditional classes, Computers and Composition 18,  275–292. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S8755-4615(01)00056-1

Cartney, P. (2010) Exploring the use of peer assessment as a vehicle for closing the gap between feedback given and feedback used, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 35:5, 551-564. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/02602931003632381

Figl, K., Bauer, C., Mangler, J., Motschnig, R. (2006) Online versus Face-to-Face Peer Team Reviews, Proceedings of Frontiers in Education Conference (FIE). San Diego: IEEE. See here for online version (behind a paywall).

Guardado, M., Shi, L. (2007) ESL students’ experiences of online peer feedback, Computers and Composition 24, 443–461. Doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.compcom.2007.03.002

Hewett, B. (2000) Characteristics of Interactive Oral and Computer-Mediated Peer Group Talk and Its Influence on Revision, Computers and Composition 17, 265-288. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S8755-4615(00)00035-9

Jones, R.H., Garralda, A., Li, D.C.S. & Lock, G. (2006) Interactional dynamics in on-line and face-to-face peer-tutoring sessions for second language writers, Journal of Second Language Writing 15,  1–23. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jslw.2005.12.001

Liu, J. & Sadler, R.W. (2003) The effect and affect of peer review in electronic versus traditional modes on L2 writing, Journal of English for Academic Purposes 2, 193–227. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S1475-1585(03)00025-0

Sullivan, S. & Pratt, E. (1996) A comparative study of two ESL writing environments: A computer-assisted classroom and a traditional oral classroom, System 29, 491-501. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0346-251X(96)00044-9

Van den Berg, I., Admiraal, W.,  & Pilot, A. (2006) Designing student peer assessment in higher education: analysis of written and oral peer feedback, Teaching in Higher Education, 11:2, 135-147.  DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13562510500527685

Peer Assessment: Face to face vs. online, synchronous (Part 2)

Here I look at one last study I’ve found that focuses on the nature of student peer feedback discussions when they take place in a synchronous, online environment (a text-based chat). Part 1 corresponding to this post can be found here.

Jones, R.H., Garralda, A., Li, D.C.S. & Lock, G. (2006) Interactional dynamics in on-line and face-to-face peer-tutoring sessions for second language writers, Journal of Second Language Writing 15,  1–23. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jslw.2005.12.001

This study is rather different than the ones I looked at in Part 1 of face to face vs. online, synchronous peer assessment, because here the subjects of the study are students and peer tutors in a writing centre rather than peers in the same course. Still, at least some of their results regarding the nature of peer talk in the tutor situation may still be relevant for peer assessment in courses.

Participants and data

The participants in this study were five peer tutors in a writing centre in Hong Kong, dedicated to helping non-native English speakers write in English. For both tutors and clients, English was an additional language, but the tutors were further along in their English studies and had more proficiency in writing in English than the clients. Data was collected from transcripts of face to face consultations of the tutors with clients, as well as transcripts of online, text-based chat sessions of the same tutors, with many of the same clients.

Face to face tutoring was only available in the daytime on weekdays, so if students wanted help after hours, they could turn to the online chat. Face to face sessions lasted between 15 and 30 minutes, and students “usually” emailed a draft of their work to the tutor before the session. Chat sessions could be anywhere from a few minutes to an hour, and though tutors and clients could send files to each other through a file exchange system, this was only done “sometimes” (6). These details will become important later.

Model for analyzing speech

To analyze the interactions between tutors and clients, the authors used a model based on “Halliday’s functional-semantic view of dialogue (Eggins & Slade, 1997; Halliday, 1994)” (4). In this model, one analyzes conversational “moves,” which are different than “turns”–a “turn” can have more than one “move.” The authors explain a move as “a discourse unit that represents the realization of a speech function” (4).

In their model, the authors use a fundamental distinction given by Halliday into “initiating moves” and “responding moves”:

Initiating moves (statements, offers, questions, and commands) are those taken independently of an initiating move by the other party; responding moves (such as acts of acknowledgement, agreement, compliance, acceptance, and answering) are those taken in response to an initiating move by the other party. (4-5)

They then subdivide these two categories further, some of which is discussed briefly below.


Conversational control

In the face to face meetings, the tutors exerted the most control over the discussions. Tutors had many more initiating moves (around 40% of their total moves, vs. around 10% of those for clients), whereas clients had more responding moves (around 33% of clients’ total moves, vs. about 14% for tutors). In the chat conversations, on the other hand, initiating and responding moves were about equal for both tutors and clients (7).

Looking more closely at the initiating moves made by both tutors and clients, the authors report:

In face-to-face meetings, tutors controlled conversations primarily by asking questions, making statements, and issuing directives. In this mode tutors asked four times more questions than clients. In the on-line mode, clients asked more questions than tutors, made significantly more statements than in the face-to-face mode, and issued just as many directives as tutors. (10)

Types of questions

However, the authors also point out that even though the clients asserted more conversational control in the online chats, it was “typical” of the chats to consist of questions by students asking whether phrases, words, or sentences were “correct” (11). They did not often ask for explanations, just a kind of check of their work from an expert and a quick answer as to whether something was right or wrong. On the other hand, when tutors controlled the conversations with their questions, it was often the case that they were using strategies to try to get clients to understand something themselves, to understand why something is right or wrong and to be able to apply that later. So “control” over the conversation, and who asks the most questions or issues the most directives, are not the only important considerations here.

The authors also divided the questions into three different types. Closed questions: “those eliciting yes/no responses or giving the answerer a finite number of choices; open questions: “those eliciting more extended replies”; rhetorical questions: “those which are not meant to elicit a response at all” (12)

In the face to face sessions, tutors used more closed questions (about 50% of their initiating questions) than open questions (about 33%); the opposite was true in the online chats: tutors used more open questions (about 50% of their initiating questions) than closed (about 41%).

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Peer assessment: Face to face vs. online, synchronous (Part 1)

This is another post in the series on research literature that looks at the value of doing peer assessment/peer feedback in different ways, whether face to face, orally, or through writing (mostly I’m looking at computer-mediated writing, such as asynchronous discussion boards or synchronous chats). Earlier posts in this series can be found here, here, here and here.

In this post I’ll look at a few studies that focus on peer assessment through online, synchronous discussions (text-based chats).

1. Sullivan, S. & Pratt, E. (1996) A comparative study of two ESL writing environments: A computer-assisted classroom and a traditional oral classroom, System 29, 491-501. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0346-251X(96)00044-9

 38 second-year university students studying English writing for the first time (where English was an additional language) participated in the study. They were distributed in two classes taught by the same professor, where all the teaching materials were the same except that in one class all class discussions and peer evaluation discussions were held orally, face to face, and in the other all class discussions and peer group discussions were held online, in a synchronous “chat” system. In the computer-assisted class, students met often in a computer lab, where they engaged in whole-class discussions and peer group discussions using the chat system.

[I see the reason for doing this sort of thing, so that students don’t have to spend time outside of class doing online chats, but I do always find it strange to have a room full of students and the teacher sitting together but only communicating through computers.]

Research questions:

(1) Are there differences in attitudes toward writing on computers, writing apprehension, and overall quality of writing between the two groups after one semester?; and

(2) Is the nature of the participation and discourse in the two modes of communication different?

In what follows I will only look at the last part of question 1 (the overall quality of writing), as well as question 2.

Writing scores

At the beginning of the term, students produced a writing sample based on a prompt given by the instructor. This was compared with a similar writing sample given at the end of the term. These were “scored holistically on a five point scale by two trained raters” (494).

In the oral class, strangely, the writing scores went down by the end of the term: at the beginning the mean was 3.41 (out of 5), with a standard deviation of 0.77, and at the end it was 2.95 with a SD of 0.84. The authors do not comment on this phenomenon, though the difference (0.46) is not great. In the computer class, the writing scores went up slightly: from a mean of 3.19 (SD 0.77) at the beginning to 3.26 (SD 0.70) at the end. The authors note, though, that “[t]he students in the two classes did not differ significantly (below the 0.05 probability level) at the beginning nor at the end of the semester” (496).

They did find a some evidence that the students in the computer assisted class did improve their writing:

However, some evidence was found for improved writing in the computer-assisted class by comparing the writing score changes of the two classes (computer-assisted classroom’ s gain (+0.07) to oral classroom’s loss (-0.46)). A t-test showed the difference to be significant at the 0.08 probability level. (496)

The authors conclude, however, that the data does not support saying one environment is better than another in terms of improving writing (nor, incidentally, for the rest of research question (1), above).

Discourse patterns in peer group discussions 

[The authors also looked at discourse patterns in the whole-class discussions, but as I don’t plan to do whole-class discussions via chats in the near future, I’m skipping that portion of the article here.]

There were more comments made in the oral class, during peer assessment discussions, than in the online chat groups: 40-70 turns per group for the oral discussions and 14-25 turns per group for the online chats (498). However, the authors found that the discussion in the oral class was, as they put it, “less focused” (498), in the sense that there were more interjections of personal narratives and repetitions of what other students had said. In the computer class, the talk was more “focused on the task of criticizing the writing rather than conversing with their fellow students while on the network” (499).

The tone of the article here indicates that the talk in the online chat was better than that in the oral discussion. But as noted in Hewett (2000), the sort of talk that might be interpreted as “unfocused” could also be interpreted as an important part of participating in an interactive discussion. Repetitions indicate that one is listening, following along, and being an engaged participant in a discussion. Personal narratives can both help to make a point as well as forge some connections between discussion group members, perhaps bringing them closer together and thereby helping them feel more comfortable (which could contribute to more productive peer evaluation).

In addition, in the oral groups the author of the paper being discussed often dominated the discussion, while the author spoke less in the online chats, making for more equal participation.

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Peer assessment: face to face vs. online, asynchronous (Pt. 2)

This is part of a series of posts in which I summarize and comment on research literature about different methods of doing peer assessment. Earlier posts in this series can be found here and here, and part 1 corresponding to this particular post is here.

In this post I summarize, as briefly as I can, a complex study on differences between how students speak to each other when doing peer assessment when it’s in person versus on a discussion board (mostly asynchronous, but students also did some posting to the discussion boards in a nearly synchronous environment, during class time).

Hewett, B. (2000) Characteristics of Interactive Oral and Computer-Mediated Peer Group Talk and Its Influence on Revision, Computers and Composition 17, 265-288. DOI: 10.1016/S8755-4615(00)00035-9

This study looked at differences between ways peers talk in face to face environments and computer-mediated environments (abbreviated in the article as CMC, for computer-mediated communication). It also looked at whether there are differences in the ways students revise writing assignments after these different modes of peer assessment and feedback.

There were several research questions for the study, but here I’ll focus just on this one:

How is peer talk that occurs in the traditional oral and in the CMC classroom alike and different? Where differences exist, are they revealed in the writing that is developed subsequent to the peer-response group sessions? If so, how? (267)

Participants and data

Students in two sections of an upper-level course (Argumentative writing) at a four-year university participated; one section engaged in face to face peer assessment, and the other used computer-mediated peer assessment, but otherwise the two course were the same, taught by the same instructor. The CMC course used a discussion board system with comments organized chronologically (and separated according to the peer groups), and it was used both during class, synchronously (so students were contributing to it while they were sitting in a class with computers) and outside of class, asynchronously.

Peer group conversations were recorded in the face to face class, and the record of conversations from the CMC class could just be downloaded. The author also collected drafts of essays on which the peer discussion took place. Data was collected from all students, but only the recordings of conversations in one peer group in each class (oral and CMC) were used for the study. I’m not sure how many students this ended up being–perhaps 3-4 per peer group? [update (Feb. 28, 2013)] Looking at the article again, a footnote shows that there were four students in each group.

One of those groups, the CMC group, engaged in both computer-mediated peer discussion as well as oral discussion at a later point–so this group provides a nice set of data about the same people, discussing together, in two different environments. Below, when talking about the “oral” groups, the data include the group that was in the oral only class, plus the CMC group when they discussed orally.


Nature of the talk in both environments

Not surprisingly, the student discussion in the face to face groups was highly interactive; the students’ statements often referred to what someone else had said, asked questions of others, clarified their own and others’ statements, and used words and phrases that cued to others that they were listening and following along, encouraging dialogue (e.g., saying “yes,” “right,” “okay,” “exactly”) (269-270).

In the CMC discussions, the talk was less interactive. Multiple threads of discussion occurred on the board, and each students’ comments could pick up on several at a time. This created a “multivocal tapestry of talk” that individuals would have to untangle in order to participate (270). At times, students in a peer group would respond to the paper being discussed, but not to each other (271), so that the comments were more like separate, standalone entities than part of an interactive conversation.

In addition, the possibility for asynchronous communication, though it could be convenient, also left some students’ comments and questions unanswered, since others may or may not return to the board after the synchronous group “chat” time had ended.

Subjects of the talk in each environment

Hewett found that face to face discussion had more talk about ideas, wider issues raised in the papers, and information about the contexts surrounding the claims and issues discussed in the papers, than in the CMC discussion (276). The CMC groups tended to focus more on the content of what was written, and showed less evidence of working together to develop new ideas about the topics in the essays. Hewett suggests: “Speculative thinking often involves spinning fluid and imperfectly formed ideas; it requires an atmosphere of give-and-take and circumlocution,” which is more characteristic of oral speech (276).

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Peer assessment: face to face vs. asynchronous, online (Pt. 1)

I have been doing a good deal of reading research on peer assessment lately, especially studies that look at differences and benefits/drawbacks of doing peer assessment face to face , orally, and through writing–both asynchronous writing in online environments (e.g., comments on a discussion board) and synchronous writing online (e.g., in text-based “chats”). I summarized a few studies on oral vs. written  peer assessment in this blog post, and then set out a classification structure for different methods of peer assessment in this one.

Here, I summarize a few studies I’ve read that look at written, online, asynchronous peer feedback. In another post I’ll summarize some studies that compare oral, face to face with written, online, synchronous (text-based chats). I hope some conclusion about the differences and the benefits of each kind can be drawn after summarizing the results.

1. Tuzi, F. (2004) The impact of e-feedback on the revisions of L2 writers in an academic writing course, Computers and Composition 21, 217–235. doi:10.1016/j.compcom.2004.02.003

This study is a little outside of my research interest, as it doesn’t compare oral feedback to written (in any form). Rather, the research focus was to look at how students revised essays after receiving e-feedback from peers and their teacher. Oral feedback was only marginally part of the study, as noted below.

20 L2 students (students for whom English was an additional language) in a first-year writing course at a four-year university participated in this study. Paper drafts were uploaded onto a website where other students could read them and comment on them. The e-feedback could be read on the site, but was also sent via email to students (and the instructor). Students wrote four papers as part of the study, and could revise each paper up to five times. 97 first drafts and 177 revisions were analyzed in the study. The author compared comments received digitally to later revised drafts, to see what had been incorporated. He also interviewed the authors of the papers to ask what sparked them to make the revisions they did.

Tuzi combined the results from analyzing the essay drafts and e-feedback (to see what of the feedback had been incorporated into revisions) with the results of the interviews with students, to identify the stimuli for changes in the drafts. From these data he concludes that 42.1% of the revisions were instigated by the students themselves, 15.6% from e-feedback, 148.% from the writing centre, 9.5% from oral feedback (from peers, I believe), and for 17.9% of the revisions, the source was “unknown.” He also did a few finer-grained analyses, showing how e-feedback fared in relation to these other sources at different levels of writing (such as the punctuation, word, sentence, paragraph), in terms of the purpose of the revision (e.g., new information, grammar) and more. In many analyses, the source of most revisions was the students themselves, but e-feedback ranked second some (such as working at the sentence, clause and paragraph levels, and adding new information). Oral feedback was always low on the list.

In the “discussion” section, Tuzi states:

Although e-feedback is a relatively new form of feedback, it was the cause of a large number of essay changes. In fact, e-feedback resulted in more revisions than feedback from the writing center or oral feedback. E-feedback may be a viable avenue for receiving comments for L2 writers. Another interesting observation is that although the L2 writers stated that they preferred oral feedback, they made more e-feedback-based changes than oral-based changes.

True, but note that in this study oral feedback was not emphasized. It was something students could get if they wanted, but only the e-feedback was focused on in the course. So little can be concluded here about oral vs. e-feedback. To be fair, that wasn’t really the point of the study, however. The point was simply to see how students use e-feedback, whether it is incorporated into revisions, and what kinds of revisions e-feedback tends to be used for. And Tuzi is clear towards the end: “Although [e-feedback] is a useful tool, I do not believe it is a replacement for oral feedback or classroom interaction …”. Different means of feedback should be available; this study just shows, he says, that e-feedback can be useful as one of them.

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Problems with grading rubrics for complex assignments

In an earlier post I discussed a paper by D. Royce Sadler on how peer marking could be a means for students to learn how to become better assessors themselves, of their own and others’ work. This could not only allow them to become more self-regulated learners, but also fulfill roles outside of the university in which they will need to evaluate the work of others. In that essay Sadler argues against giving students preset marking criteria to use to evaluate their own work or that of other students (when that work is complex, such as an essay), because:

  1. “Quality” is more of a global concept that can’t easily be captured by a set of criteria, as it often includes things that can’t be easily articulated.
  2. As Sadler pointed out in a comment to the post noted above, having a set of criteria in advance predisposes students to look for only those things, and yet in any particular complex work there may be other things that are relevant for judging quality.
  3. Giving students criteria in advance doesn’t prepare them for life beyond their university courses, where they won’t often have such criteria.

I was skeptical about asking students to evaluate each others’ work without any criteria to go on, so I decided to read another one of his articles in which this point is argued for more extensively.

Here I’ll give a summary of Sadler’s book chapter entitled “Transforming Holistic Assessment and Grading into a Vehicle for Complex Learning” (in Assessment, Learning and Judgement in Higher Education, Ed. G. Joughin. Dordrecht: Springer, 2009). DOI: 10.1007/978-1-4020-8905-3_4).

[Update April 22, 2013] Since the above is behind a paywall, I am attaching here a short article by Sadler that discusses similar points, and that I’ve gotten permission to post (by both Sadler and the publisher): Are we short-changing our students? The use of present criteria in assessment. TLA Interchange 3 (Spring 2009): 1-8. This was a publication from what is now the Institute for Academic Development at the University of Edinburgh, but these newsletters are no longer online.

Note: this is a long post! That’s because it’s a complicated article, and I want to ensure that I’ve got all the arguments down before commenting.

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How does giving comments in peer assessment affect students? (Part 3)

This is the third post in a series summarizing empirical studies that attempt to answer the question posed in the title. The first two can be found here and here. This will be the last post in the series, I think, unless I find some other pertinent studies.

Lundstrom, K. and Baker, W. (2009) To give is better than to receive: The benefits of peer review to the reviewer’s own writing, Journal of Second Language Writing 18, 30-43. Doi: 10.1016/j.jslw.2008.06.002

This article is focused on students in “L2” classes (second language, or additional language), and asks whether students who review peers’ papers do better in their own (additional language) writing than students who only receive peer reviews and attempt to incorporate the feedback rather than giving comments on peers’ papers.

Participants were 91 students enrolled in nine sections of additional language writing classes at the English Language Center at Brigham Young University. The courses were at two levels out of a possible five: half the students were in level 2, “high beginning,” and half were in level 4, “high intermediate” (33). The students were then divided into a control and experimental group:

The first group was composed of two high beginning and three high intermediate classes, (totaling forty-six students). This group was the control group (hereafter ‘‘receivers’’) and received peer feedback but did not review peers’ papers (defined as compositions written by students at their same proficiency level). The second group was composed of two high beginning classes and two high intermediate classes, (totaling forty-five students), and made up the experimental group, who reviewed peer papers but did not receive peer feedback (hereafter ‘‘givers’’). (33; emphasis mine)

Research questions and procedure to address them

Research questions:

1. Do students who review peer papers improve their writing ability more than those who revise peer papers (for both beginning and intermediate students)?

2. If students who review peer papers do improve their writing ability more than those who revise them, on which writing aspects (both global and local) do they improve? (32)

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How does giving comments in peer assessment impact students? (Part 2)

This is the second post looking at published papers that use empirical data to answer the question in the title. The first can be found here. As noted in that post, I’m using “peer assessment” in a broad way, referring not just to activities where students give grades or marks to each other, but more on the qualitative feedback they provide to each other (as that is the sort of peer assessment I usually use in my courses).

Here I’ll look at just one article on how giving peer feedback affects students, as this post ended up being long. I’ll look at one last article in the next post (as I’ve only found four articles on this topic so far).

Lu, J. and Law, N. (2012) Online peer assessment: effects of cognitive and affective feedback, Instructional Science 40, 257-275. DOI 10.1007/s11251-011-9177-2. This article has been made open access, and can be viewed or downloaded at: http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11251-011-9177-2

In this study, 181 13-14 year old students in a Liberal Studies course in Hong Kong participated in online peer review of various parts of their final projects for the course. They were asked to both engage in peer grading and give peer feedback to each other in groups of four or five. The final project required various subtasks, and peer grading/feedback was not compulsory — students could choose which subtasks to give grades and feedback to their peers about. The grades were given using rubrics created by the teacher for each subtask, and both grades and feedback were given through an online program specially developed for the course.

Research Questions

  1. Are peer grading activities related to the quality of the final project for both assessors and assessees?
  2. Are different types of peer …  feedback related to the quality of the final projects for both assessors and assessees? (261)

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How does giving comments in peer assessment impact students? (Part 1)

Some colleagues and I are brainstorming various research we might undertake regarding peer assessment, and in our discussions the question in the title of this post came up. I am personally interested in the comments students can give to each other in peer assessment, more than in students giving marks/grades to each other. Students engaging in giving comments on each others’ work are not only impacted by receiving peer comments, of course, but through the process of giving them as well. How does practice in giving comments and evaluating others’ work affect students’ own work or the processes they use to produce it?

I’ve already looked at a couple of articles that address this question from a somewhat theoretical (rather than empirical) angle (see earlier posts here and here). As discussed in those posts, it makes sense to think that practice in evaluating the work of peers could help students get a better sense of what counts as “high quality,” and thus have that understanding available to use in self-monitoring so as to become more self-regulated.

In this post I summarize the findings of two empirical articles looking at the question of whether and how providing feedback to others affects the quality of students’ own work. I will continue this summary in another post, where I look at another few articles.

(1) Li, L., Liu, X. and Steckelberg, A.L. (2010) Assessor or assessee: How student learning improves by giving and receiving peer feedback, British Journal of Educational Technology 41:3, 525-536. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8535.2009.00968.x

In this study, 43 undergraduate teacher-education students engaged in online peer assessment of each others’ WebQuest projects. Each student evaluated the projects of two other students. They used a rubric, and I believe they gave both comments and marks to each other. Students then revised their projects, having been asked to take the peer assessment into account and decide what to use from it. The post-peer assessment projects were marked by the course instructor.

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