Peer Review as part of the Undergraduate Lab Report Assignment


This design memo describes a strategy implemented in the Introduction to Environmental Science and Policy Courses during the Spring 2015 Semester.  This peer review component was incorporated into an existing lab report assignment with the goal of increasing student understanding of the scientific method as well as the lab activity. At the end of the semester students and faculty were surveyed regarding their experience.

What is the strategy?

Two weeks after completing the lab activity, students were required to bring 2 copies of their lab reports for an in-class peer review activity. During lab class, each student graded the formal lab reports of two of their classmates using the grading rubric given to them at the beginning of the semester. This means that each student had their formal lab report graded by two of their classmates. After receiving input and grades from their peers, students had 1 week to incorporate revisions before turning in a final copy to their instructors.

Why should I use it?

(How are they useful for the students? How are they useful to the instructor?)

In the past we found that few students asked questions during lab or came to faculty office hours for help with the lab report assignment. However, the past few years our course has participated in a peer mentoring program where Undergraduate Learning Assistants were available during lab time and held study sessions outside of lab. These peer-led activities had higher participation than other available study aids. In addition, a survey of students and faculty during 2012 revealed that students did not understand the scientific method component of the lab report activity. Given these two situations, the peer review component was developed to help students understanding of both the assignment and scientific method.

How do these tasks fit into my class?  How long will they take?

Students were given 30 minutes to complete this task in lab, about 15 minutes per report. The entire assignment lasted about 45 minutes with instruction, collection and distribution of reports. This was done at the beginning of a lab period that normally does not take the full 2 hours 50 minutes.  We decided to do the peer review at the beginning of lab before the regular lab assignments so students did not rush the work to leave early. We found that 30 minutes was not quite long enough to complete this task and would recommend at least an hour for instruction and review.

For which topics should I assign them?

This activity was part of the large final lab report assignment. It would probably not be appropriate for a smaller weekly lab report format.

How should I grade these problems?  Should I grade these problems?

For our lab, the grades that students receive on their formal lab report from their peers did not count toward their final grade. The graded part of this assignment was purely participation, based on three components described in the assignment as follows:

Full credit for the peer-review process will be given for a student who is present on the day of peer-review, brings two hard-copies of their formal lab report, and reviews and grades (using the grading rubric) the formal lab reports of two peers in a thoughtful, thorough, conscientious manner.

The purpose of the grades received from the students’ peers is to give students a sense of the grade they might receive from the lab instructor grading the lab report with the same grading rubric used by the peers.

What pitfalls do I need to avoid?

It was decided that the review should be done in-class to avoid plagiarizing and so that the instructor would be available to clarify the grading rubric.  For this type of class we felt that a very clear and detailed grading rubric was necessary in order to avoid discrepancies between instructor and peer grading. For each portion of the grading rubric we specified the components required for full, half, or no credit.

What do I need to explain to my students about this new classroom activity?

The purpose of the peer-review process is to 1) provide an incentive for students to scrutinize, evaluate and understand the formal lab report grading rubric prior to their lab instructors using the grading rubric to grade the formal lab report, 2) give students the opportunity to learn from seeing examples of formal lab reports of different qualities, and 3) give students the opportunity to improve their formal lab report based on input from their peers prior to it being submitted for grading by the lab instructor.