In middle school, students care about what their classmates say and think about them. Often students pay more attention to what peers say and do than to what the teacher says and does. I wanted to harness our classroom culture of helping and learning from each other with the social influence of peers. I did this by creating a writing activity that we can use with any piece of student work. The objective of this activity is for students to evaluate the work of their classmates and provide meaningful student-to-student feedback through writing. By synthesizing a protocol from the National School Reform Faculty called Making Meaning with Accountable Talk sentence starters, I created a Peer Evaluation Protocol for our middle school students. My colleagues who teach K-5 at the Gardner Pilot Academy adapted the Peer Evaluation Protocol to make an elementary friendly Peer Evaluation Protocol.
There are a number of underlying beliefs that support this activity. Some beliefs are backed up by research, and others are grounded in personal observations from my classroom. First, I believe that math teachers are also writing teachers and math students are writers. Writing activities must be deliberately planned in math because writing is not a skill that is built in to the curriculum. Writing in math deepens mathematical understanding and students must be able to communicate their math knowledge through speaking and writing. They can only do this if we teach them how to and give them plenty of opportunities to practice.
Second, students improve their math skills by evaluating peer work. There are enormous benefits in making students active participants in the evaluation process. There are two parts to this: when a student looks at a peer’s work and learns something new, and when a student’s work is looked at by a peer, given feedback, and the student learns something new. Indeed, since I began this process, I have noticed students caring more about their work. I have asked my students, “Are you excited to read what others wrote about your work?” The answer is always an overwhelming “YES!”
Third, students improve their math skills by receiving feedback from other students. Giving high quality feedback is challenging for teachers, imagine for students! However, given the tools, students are capable giving effective feedback and of asking quality questions. The challenge for teachers, then, is to teach students how to give high quality feedback. I believe that this includes the skill of students asking quality questions to their peers that will push mathematical reasoning skills.
Fourth, students improve their math skills by engaging in Mathematical Practice Standard 3: Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others. This writing activity is rich in critiquing the reasoning of others. The last two parts of the protocol require the evaluator to conclude what the student should continue to do and discontinue doing. Students will read the math strategies of their peers and decide whether it makes sense, ask clarifying questions, and make suggestions for improvement.
In step one, a student looks at the work of another student and writes about what they see. They are only writing about what they observe, all judgment and opinions are left out of this step. The sentence starter “I notice…” is suggested for this step.
Step two asks, “What questions does this work raise for you?” The sentence starter that students can use is “I wonder…” I have found that asking questions about math work is not easy. We want the questions to be cognitively complex and push students mathematical reasoning skills. It may be helpful to provide students with question stems. Here are Depth Of Knowledge questions stems that I have found useful.
Step three asks, “Which math strategies are used?” At this point, students describe the strategies they see and should be encouraged to use math vocabulary in their description. Students own their description by starting with the sentence stem “I think…” In the past, I have put a minimum requirement of math vocabulary words that a student must use for this step.
Step four asks, “What should the student do differently next time?” This is a chance for the evaluator to give some tips. This step comes near the end of the protocol because students have had a chance to notice and describe, and now they need to develop an opinion and offer advice for how the author can improve. Some students struggle to give advice to the more advanced students in the class. However, I try to stress that our best can always get better and that even the most brilliant mathematicians are constantly seeking to improve.
Step five asks, “What should the students be sure to do next time?” At this final step, the evaluator acknowledges the awesome things they saw. This is a chance to praise and end on a positive note.
Peer evaluation and feedback is hard work. The majority of the activity requires higher order thinking skills in the analyzing, generating, integrating, and evaluating categories. Students are analyzing student work, reflecting on what they see, asking questions about student work, evaluating strategies for correctness and efficiency, summarizing strategies in their own words, and concluding with their opinion about what students should and should not do next time. As students have more experience using the Peer Evaluation Protocol they develop their ability to ask critical questions and provide meaningful feedback to classmates. This in turn positively affects everybody’s mathematical reasoning and critical thinking skills.
Ideally, this activity will become a routine that is used throughout the school year. Students will improve their writing skills and engage in complex thinking through the peer evaluation protocol. Students have reported feeling like this work is meaningful as evidenced by the sticky note collage pictured above. I asked students if they care about their peer evaluations and if they are meaningful to them? The feedback was powerful and has inspired me to continue this work of students helping students by evaluating each other’s work and giving feedback through writing.