Monday, December 19, 2011

Assessment and Students' Lack of Self-Knowledge

As part of our departmental assessment, I have conducted a survey among students in advanced philosophy classes regarding how useful they found our entry-level courses in preparing them for the philosophy course they are currently taking. I asked students to rate how well the entry-level course prepared them to read philosophy, write philosophy, reconstruct & debate philosophy (this mirrors our departmental course learning objectives for Intro to Philosophy), as well as how well it prepared them overall. I also asked students what activities they had encountered in their entry-level course (e.g. lecturing, class discussion, writing workshops, etc). Then I asked to name the 3 activities they found the most helpful and the 3 they found the least helpful.

I have just started crunching through the data, but have found some interesting correlations.
For example, though a large number of students cited peer-review as one of the least helpful activities, students who had encountered peer-review in their classes rated themselves as being better prepared to write philosophy than students who had not. The gap between those who had encountered peer-review and those who had not was larger than that for students who had encountered in-class writing exercise vs. those who had not and between those who had encountered writing workshops vs. those who had not, though there was a substantial gap favoring those writing activities as well. However, students had rated in-class writing exercises and writing workshops as helpful whereas they had not rated peer-review as helpful. It is not surprising that students might not have the best access to what activities they learn the most from, but I found the results to be interesting. Of course, the sample here is small—about 80 students—but I thought the data was interesting enough to share. Thoughts?


  1. This isn't the same thing, but: I teach peer editing of writing work in my classes and have great faith in it. Students must be taught how to respond usefully, and I also ask them to consider what they may have learned about their own writing while reading essays by others.

    When I was in my MFA for writing program my peers continually complained about peer response, claiming it was useless. I found it interesting: What is the author trying to achieve here? What is going well? What is not clear? What detracts from meaning?

    I believe I am both helpful to the writer and to myself by studying what others write, even what other students write.

  2. Jennifer, two thoughts:
    1. I'm not sure exactly the language you used in your questions, but I've found that students are often not accustomed to thinking about what sorts of activities help them learn, and as a result, their answers to questions of that kind are not very informative. It could be that many students simply don't like peer review (in comparison with writing workshops, etc.) and that's really what's being reported. In other words, students who lack a very robust sense of themselves as learners are not likely to answer questions about learning in their intended spirit.

    2. About your more specific results: Peer review can be a very frustrating experience for students. For one, most students are very accustomed to getting feedback from putative experts (their teachers). And they implicitly trust that feedback. But in peer review, they'll get conflicting feedback or messages from other students, and of course, they're in no position to separate the useful, on-track feedback from the feedback that, if followed, would lead students astray. Moreover, students are (in my observation) pretty self-interested here and often don't take their responsibilities as reviewers that seriously. They also don't see that the ability to give feedback and the ability to write well are intertwined.

  3. Oh, and one last thing: We talked some of these worries here:

  4. "For example, though a large number of students cited peer-review as one of the least helpful activities, students who had encountered peer-review in their classes rated themselves as being better prepared to write philosophy than students who had not."

    I'm not sure if "better prepared" here means that they were better prepared *by the program* or if they generally believe themselves to be better prepared to write philosophy, relative to themselves or to other students.

    I think you mean the latter. If so, I wouldn't conclude that the students who rated themselves highly did not know that peer review helped them. I find it more plausible that students who believe they are good writers (of philosophy or anything else) are the most likely to find peer review frustrating and useless. They need not actually *be* good writers, of course, and peer review need not actually *be* useless to them. But if they do not regard their reviewers as their peers when it comes to writing philosophy, it would be no surprise that they give high ratings to their writing ability and low ratings to the utility of peer review.

    I suspect, though, that at least some of those students are correct to rate their writing ability above that of their classmates. I've yet to meet any student who enjoyed group work of any kind (not even free-riders seem to like it), but it is no secret that it is particularly grating to students who regard their group, rightly or wrongly, as a hindrance to getting their own work done.

  5. @ Michael. I agree with both of your points. I do think that the wording can have a significant influence on the results of the survey and I certainly don't have enough experience in writing surveys to be able to assess how much influence that had. I also think peer-review can be frustrating. I think it can be especially frustrating if they only see the "useful" part for them as based on the quality of the feedback of their peer and ignore what they are learning about their own paper by reading someone else's paper and applying a rubric to it (which is how I do peer review).

    @Anonymous. Thanks for the request for clarification. You were right, students that rate themselves as better prepared to write (in virtue of taking our introductory course) are the ones that found peer-review the least helpful. I agree that it is possible that they are already good writers and so found peer-review frustrating. Or, I suspect, they don't appreciate the value to their own writing of reading someone else's paper.


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