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The Problems with Peer Grading in Coursera

by Audrey Watters

When I wrote about the launch of online education startup Coursera back in April, one of the things that most intrigued me was the description that founders Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng gave of their plans for a peer-to-peer grading system. I’ve been a critic of the rise of the robot-graders — that is, the increasing usage of automated assessment software (used in other xMOOCS and online courses, as well as in other large-scale testing systems). While some assignments might lend themselves to being graded this way, I’ve been skeptical that automation is really the way to go for disciplines require essay-writing, despite the contention that robo-graders score just as well as humans do. Coursera said it would offer poetry classes (a modern poetry class starts this fall), and I just couldn’t see how even the most sophisticated artificial intelligence in the world could grade students’ intepretations and close readings.

So Coursera’s plans for peer assessment sounded pretty reasonable.

The plans sounded reasonable too, I admit, as I’m someone who’s used peer review a lot in my own classes. I like the idea of students writing for each other, not just for me as instructor. I think they benefit from seeing how their peers write and think, and I think the process of reviewing others’ work helps them recognize their own strengths and weaknesses in turn.

I found my students to be pretty fair with the assessments they gave their peers. They were neither too brutal nor too lax when they evaluated each others’ work. My anecdotal experience matches some of the research that suggests that when students assess their peers’ work, they do score similarly to the grades professors would give (although others have found that peer grades are higher.

But peer assessment in a class of thirty is very different than peer assessment in a class of several thousand, and based on some of the early feedback from several of the Coursera classes utilizing the peer assessment, there are some very serious challenges with doing so.

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