Using peer assessment to improve essay writing skills & understanding of assessment criteria

Dan Rigby (Economics, SoSS) describes how he sought to improve students’ essay writing skills and understanding of the assessment criteria.

Dan had 1,200 First Year students due to write their first Economics, and for many their first University, essay.  To prepare them for this, he uploaded two past essays to Blackboard with the Assessment Criteria.

He set up Blackboard Groups (maximum of 25 students per group) corresponding to a schedule of Zoom sessions with a tutor to review/mark the essays.  Students were required to have reviewed and marked the 2 Essays using the provided Assessment Criteria.

Dan wanted to incentivise students to review the essays and avoid the problem of students booking in without having done the work.  To this end, he set the bookings area as Adaptive Release in Blackboard, so that the students could only book into a session if they had completed two Blackboard Assignments.  The Assignments comprised, for each essay, entering:

  • 3 strengths
  • 3 weaknesses or areas for improvement
  • predicted mark

The Zoom sessions started with an introduction from the tutor, then students went into Breakout Rooms to discuss the strengths and weaknesses for each essay and discuss their predicted marks.

Demand far exceeded expectations – c.600 students completed the Assignments and booked into a session over a two week period.

The feedback students received on their essays later in the term followed the same structure of three strengths and three weaknesses/areas for improvement.

Evaluation / Student Feedback

About 600 of 1200 students completed the 2 assignments and booked a session.

In the post-session evaluation form 97% of students rated the session as Fair-Excellent, and 76% rated it Good-Excellent.

Comments included “learned a lot from it”, “very helpful, clear, analysis”,  and “very in-depth analysis”.


Encourages students to engage with the Assessment Criteria in advance of the essay, rather than only after receiving their mark when trying to understand  how they could have scored higher.

Careful selection of the past essays allows you to convey specific points – for example:

  • both of the essays I selected used many examples, but one of them chose barely or not relevant examples.
  • one of the essays used (good) Figures/Tables but did not explain them in the text – students tended to reward those Figures/Tables with good marks without grasping the importance of explanation in the essay text.
Top Tips

Making the booking area Adaptive Release incentivised students to do the work and reduced the previously encountered problem of people attending the sessions without having done the work (turning up to only consume rather than also contribute).

Choose the past essays carefully (rather than just pick a high and medium/low mark)  to plan what students learn from the process.


McConlogue (2012): But is it fair? Developing students’ understanding of grading complex written work through peer assessment.

Tai, et al (2017): Developing evaluative judgement: enabling students to make decisions about the quality of work.


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School: Social Sciences

Discipline: Economics

Academic: Dan Rigby

Course: Microeconomics I

Cohort Size: 1,200 first year students

Themes: Peer Assessment, assessment criteria

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