Friday, March 13, 2015

Peer assessment: What is it all about in the end?

Peer and self-assessment have become terms of art in a great many fields; the underlying concept for ongoing professional development and improvement at the institutional and personal level.  In academia, for example, self-assessment and peer program review are steps for seeking and maintaining program accreditation by local or national accrediting bodies. Accreditation suggests the establishment of quality standards, and to some extent, predictability of the competencies graduates would have upon completion of their program of studies.  Peer and self-assessment are also key strategies for the improvement of individual performance. To be a valid and productive exercise, however; i.e. one that leads to improvement, peer and self-assessment require the acquisition and application of a specific set of skills.

Recently,  in my teaching of court interpreters in both language-neutral and language-specific approaches at the graduate level, self and peer assessment have acquired a new meaning to me.  In the information era, instructors are guides of the student’s learning process. Although instructors possess the professional  experience that most students have yet to acquire, they no longer are the only source students can draw from.  Also, when working with a group of adults at the graduate level, the likelihood of students having a strong body of knowledge in related fields is quite high. Some of them may even have experience in the field. Let’s face it; in such a context, the  bulk of instruction comes from the students themselves. That is why we have made it a point to teach our students how to self-assess and, very importantly, to assess their peers’ performance. 
More recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about peer assessment; especially the conditions under which it works well to help students improve. One essential component of effective peer assessment is being neutral, especially freeing oneself from any personal like – and especially dislike – towards the person on the receiving end. It is also essential to be encouraging yet objective.  This translates into identifying areas of excellence, but also areas that need attention, and providing specific examples of both. Of course, improvement will not ensue if no solutions are proposed. Solutions should be such that the person on the receiving end does not feel overwhelmed by them. In some cases, the issue in question may be a deep-rooted problem. However, suggesting to tackle the problem at the root might be a source of frustration. Bite-sized solutions are likely to yield smaller but more realistic results. 
For both the person providing the assessment and the person being assessed, it is paramount to have the humility to acknowledge that there might be times when a proposed solution might not be the best or may, in fact, be flat out wrong.  On the receiving end, there must, of course, be the willingness or disposition to receive feedback dispassionately.  Do not take it personally, do not apologize. One can defend a viewpoint, but should also be open to a different perspective.
So, in essence, what is peer assessment really all about?  Essentially, it is about communication and diplomatic skills. It is about the acquisition and development of character. After all, isn’t character one of the elements a person is judged by in all settings and especially in court proceedings? It is about essential professional skills that would allow a person to navigate the dicey waters of human organizations without alienating others.  This is particularly true for people in formal leadership roles. Of course, there are several styles of leadership  some of which are frequently linked to personality and some leaders may not be aware of their style. Peer assessment is about awareness of human interaction and approaches to generate positive change .


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