Using a peer review exercise for oral presentations in postgraduate Forensic Psychology

Instructor: Dr Hannah Dickson and Dr Joel Harvey (project conducted also with Dr Nigel Blackwood)
MSc Clinical Forensic Psychology; Department of Forensic and Neurodevelopmental Science (IoPPN)
Assessment activity: 
12 minute oral presentation describing a piece of clinical work undertaken with a patient as part of the student’s forensic placement. The peer review activity described below takes place two weeks prior to this summative assessment.


Why did you introduce the peer review activity?

The module consists of 3 summative assessments: an essay to critically evaluate a policy used in their clinical skills forensics placement; a short oral presentation describing a piece of clinical work undertaken as part of a placement during their programme of study; and a reflective report on their placement.

The presentation was introduced to assess students’ ability to summarise and present on a piece of work carried out at their placement. After the first year of this assessment, the peer feedback intervention was introduced as students expressed some anxiety and confusion around presentation skills. This allowed us to conduct a small scale research project on the benefits of peer feedback, comparing a group who had taken part in peer review with one who had not.

Some key benefits of peer evaluation/review and feedback have been identified in the literature:

  • Promoting understanding of standards, especially as in this case with a relatively new assessment. Peer review develops students’ ability to use criteria and judge the quality of their work and that of their peers (Sadler, 1998).
  • Improvement in confidence, reflective and critical thinking and understanding of the content (Topping 1998; Lu and Law, 2012).

This study expanded on previous research in that it focused on the tangible impact of improvement on students’ grades in summative assessments. This was possible in our model of peer activity by using a control group.

You can read the full report of the study here. 

How did you design the activity? 

The peer review activity took place 2 weeks before the summative presentation assessment. We asked volunteers students from a control group cohort who had done their presentations in the previous year to repeat their presentations to a new student cohort. We asked the new students to grade the presentations and provide written feedback using standardised criteria on a scaffolded feedback sheet about what was good and what could have been improved.  Peers were required to complete these feedback sheets anonymously.

This feedback sheet then formed the basis of a dialogic feedback discussion between students (within the cohort and between past and present students) about the presentations and allowed for a discussion of student concerns.


How did you explain this to students?

We explained the benefits of watching a presentation conducted by previous students who had already completed the assessment. There was no extra work required outside of class for these students as the activity took place in class time.

Prior to the peer review activity, students were given a short talk on presentation skills and future details of the case presentation assessment. This helped familiarise them with the standards and conventions of academic presentations. We also talked through the marking criteria and the structured peer feedback sheet prior to the activity.

Peers were required to complete their feedback sheets for each other anonymously, which reduced the anxiety for presenters.


What benefits did you see?

  • Grade improvement:

Cohort A n=20 (control group -from the previous year)

Cohort B n=17 (peer review group)

Chi square test, Fisher’s exact tests and independent T-tests were performed to compare cohorts’ performance on all three assessments.

Cohort B performed better on the presentation: mean 70.4 compared to 61.2.  This was even when controlled for gender, age etc.  However, there was no statistically significant difference between scores on other assessments, which indicates that this result cannot be explained by the fact that this was a stronger cohort.

HOWEVER, the small sample size limits the generalisability of these findings.


  • Decreased anxiety around oral presentations:

In a survey, 87% of the control group said they felt more confident after completing the activity. In a further focus group, they stated that through discussion with peers within the contained classroom space of the activity, participants reported feeling “more relaxed” and that “it took off some pressure”.


  • Improved knowledge of the assessment and purposes of assessment:

In the survey, 100% of the control group said they had a better understanding of the assessment. In the focus group, they expressed the view that watching others helped them think about how to prepare and plan their own or learn from pitfalls.


  • Improved understanding of the marking criteria:

In the focus group, participants reported feeling much more confident in understanding and applying criteria. They also commented on their increased confidence in the marking process through the increased transparency of the process.


  • Empowered by peers:

By watching other people who were not experts, participants felt it helped them see the task as more realistic to achieve. On student commented: “you always see lecturers, people who are comfortable presenting, and so it was nice to see people who don’t do it the whole time.” Presenters commented that receiving feedback from peers rather than a teacher was less formal and less daunting.


What challenges did you encounter and how did you address them?

  • At first, may students commented on the ‘responsibility’ of giving feedback to peers as they did not feel comfortable being in that role. However, many commented on how this feeling changed having completing the peer review activity.

International students from educational cultures where the lecturer is seen as the authority, or students who struggle with peer trust, may have initially more difficulties (however, no significant differences in the quality of feedback or the accuracy of their grades their performance were found in the cohort). Perhaps students may need increased scaffolding and practice in order to feel more comfortable in this role.

  • Is it possible to scale this type of activity with large cohort groups? We feel this is possible, especially if using our volunteer presenter model. However, it is important to weigh up the admin burden vs the educational benefits.
  • Bias issues- students may feel pressure to give friends better feedback. In our model, the presenters and assessors were from different cohorts so this was less likely to occur. In addition, ensuring that feedback is a) anonymous and b) written down before discussion takes place decreases the potential for peer pressure to give more positive and less constructive feedback).
  • In the survey, only 80% of the control group said they thought more peer review activities should be introduced on the course. Confirmed in the focus group, they said it would be time consuming to prepare for extra formative practice on a time-intensive course.
  • Logistics: The way we staged this peer review activity requires volunteers from previous cohorts. Although it may be more scaleable to use videoed presentations for students to discuss, this reduces the element of dialogue that participants felt was valuable. Using volunteers relies on goodwill and prior organisation.
  • Because the volunteers has already presented before, it is possible that their second time might not match their original grade (either more polished from summative feedback, or rustier from a year’s gap). However, we always ensure volunteers with a range of grades are chosen and ask students not to change anything about their previous presentation.

However, as a result of this systematic study, the peer review activity is used as a regular part of the course.  

We are also experimenting with further means of helping students engage with feedback. For example, we are currently trialing and evaluating a ‘delay the grade’ project.



What advice would you give to colleagues who are thinking of using peer review activities?

Our research took place with PG students. We have found through experience that this is particularly engaging for post graduate students who, through maturity, might be less focused on the grade and competitive element of assessment. However, Ashenafi (2017) states that the effectiveness of peer review activities is increased when they are part of the culture and need to be built into a programme of study throughout. On a typical UG course, there is more time for this to take place.

It is possible that Psychology students may be naturally more suited to reflection and critical thinking skills involved in peer review, so some training may be needed if introducing on courses and in disciplines where giving feedback of this nature is less familiar.

Although in our research, students assigned presenters a grade, we would not necessarily advocate this in more formal settings or to students who were practising presentations, as it may increase anxiety and reduce the focus on formative feedback (Lu and Law 2012 and Kaufman and Schumer 2011).

Consider timing – do not stage peer review activities too close to the summative so students have time to take on board what they have learned from the activity to apply to their own presentations but also not too far away so the sense of immediacy is lost.

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