Mediated Learning Environments:
Exploring peer to peer assessment
As a guided experience
A teacher’s greatest resource
At the beginning of my teaching practice, lacking both education theory and practical experience, I focused almost entirely on study content when preparing my lessons. Student progression lay at the heart of my intentions, but in abstraction, I saw them only as neutral entities. I did not anticipate the incredibly dynamic impact they would have on the quality of our learning. I’ve come to realize that a core group of responsive and motivated students can be one of a teacher’s greatest resources. I decided to search for ways to encourage a more positive climate of learning in my classes through active student participation.
One of the most difficult challenges in any group instruction is managing the immense incongruities of ability that can exist between students seeking the same accreditation. This is particularly true in FE and early HE courses, where foundational principles still form the heart of the learning. Often, a few students are confident with the vocabulary and conceptual structures underpinning a field of study, while others are visibly buckling under the weight of new ideas. Unfortunately, in my experience, advanced students are usually the first casualties of this disparity. If left unchallenged, they can become unresponsiveness and begin to disengage with the learning process. Apparently, experiencing someone else’s learning cycle from a point of understanding can be incredibly tedious if one isn’t actually engaged in achieving a result. I could see this slow disintegration of interest occurring in a few of my more advanced students in Music Theory & Notation, and although it was disheartening, I wasn’t sure how to overcome it. At the same time, I found it a challenge continuously reformulating core concepts in an attempt to elicit a breakthrough in my less knowledgeable students. Thankfully, two key insights drawn from education theory converged in my thinking to provide a simple and effective solution: Guided Teacher Role-play.
The first of these insights comes out of a study by G.A. Nuthall, as quoted by John Hattie (2012, p.138). It found that most of the feedback students actually absorb in class comes not from the teacher, but from fellow students. Ironically, most of this feedback tends to be incorrect. Putting the immense ramifications of this disconnect aside for the moment, it would appear that for better or worse, students can place a higher value on information received from their peers than that offered by a perceived figure of authority. The second insight comes out of a study attributed to W. Glasser (Biggs & Tang, 2009, p.96), which found an incredibly high level of knowledge retainment, up to 95%, in those who learn through teaching. I knew from my own experience, the incredible power of teaching as an instrument for learning. Perhaps there was a way to offer this as a guided experience to my more advanced students, while overcoming the general tendency of students to question those in authority. And so, at key junctures in my lesson plan, I began handing off the mantle of authority to qualified students, allowing them to lead the lesson, while I sat in with the rest of the class, offering guidance through informed questions and qualifying statements.
Guided Teacher Role-play in the study of music theory
In terms of achieving my intended ILOs for Music Theory & Notation, I can only describe the effect of these occasional student/teacher role exchanges as a resounding success. I believe the introduction of Guided Teacher Role-play (GTR) has impacted positively on everyone in the class, myself included, and in ways I did not foresee. In relation to knowledge retention and reconceptualization, the basis for deep learning, the introduction by advanced students of novel learning strategies has led to many shared insights. Their use of language and approach to problem solving resonates with fellow students, leading to increased engagement by those who may be struggling with new concepts. Often these students employ techniques to learning that diverge from my own and yet remain effectual. These new perspectives can lead to breakthroughs in students I have had trouble reaching. As well, the opportunity for more advanced students to teach their peers may encourage higher cognitive levels of engagement within them, particularly those associated with ‘self-monitoring’ and ‘reflective practice’ (Biggs & Tang, 2009, p.151). Because this discussion occurs in an open forum, I am able to qualify and redirect assertions I feel to be incorrect or misleading. Thus, the misunderstandings that can occur during peer to peer learning largely disappears from the process.
The increase in multilateral communication experienced during GTR leads to many learning advantages. New perspectives on the study material are introduced and new strategies for problem-solving are explored. Student interest increases through peer to peer interaction. But perhaps the most advantageous outcome of GTR is the change in classroom atmosphere. In my experience, this mediated usurpation of the conventional teacher/student dichotomy leads to the propagation of a Theory Y environment (McGregor, 1960). By temporarily levelling the hierarchical structures that pervade the conventional classroom, my students become more animated, more actively involved in shaping our discourse, and their sense of ownership is enhanced. I believe the promotion of a Theory Y environment leads students to a deeper and more personal engagement with their learning.
Conditions for the successful implementation of Guided Teacher Role-play
It is important to mention at this point that the conditions under which these exercises took place are particularly conducive to a favourable outcome. Firstly, in this course we are fortunate to enjoy significantly small class sizes of 10 to 15 students. This is below the threshold at which Hattie attributes an ‘appreciable improvement in teacher morale and student satisfaction’ (Hattie, 1999, p.8). These conditions allow for a fluid transfer of focus within our discussions. Low student numbers lead to greater individual involvement and a stronger sense of inclusion. These exchanges can become very active and yet, I find that I am able to conduct and redirect the flow of conversation without having to dominate it. Secondly, the students in this class are pursuing the same qualification and thus share all of their courses. By the time I began experimenting with GTR, about four months into the module, peer relationships were becoming quite developed. I could identify differing social alignments, based on shared styles and interests, and I was able to use humour to challenge and subvert these in a friendly way. A social fabric was emerging, from which individual personalities could be established and reintegrated into the whole. As my students grew to know one another, this social facility began to manifest in our open forums, encouraging many other points of interaction.
Finally, a moderating point of observation, although Music Theory & Notation is a compulsory unit of the curriculum, it is not the primary field of study. The students in this class identify foremostly as producers and engineers. This may have led them to be more open to setting aside personal egos and addressing themselves to peer introduced strategies for their learning. The balancing of student egos is certainly worth considering in this framework. If not carefully managed, it is conceivable that GTR could arouse dissent amongst collaborative peers.
Mediated Peer Feedback as continuous assessment
Meeting the specific ILOs of a course like Music Theory & Notation requires a large amount of declarative learning. The challenge lies in fostering this acquired knowledge into practice, largely through ‘problem solving’ (Hattie, 2012, p.180). This involves sustaining a routine of study that continuously re-establishes and renews underlying principles, while incorporating new concepts and higher resolutions of understanding. ILOs can be very prescriptive, requiring a great deal of convergent thinking. This allows for very specific study goals and a reassuringly stable basis for formative and summative assessment.
Most of the courses I teach currently, however, are performance and practice based. In this context, teacher/learner activities primarily revolve around the acquisition of functional knowledge. Declarative knowledge acts in a supplemental capacity. It is employed to facilitate student awareness of their practice and to provide them with a vocabulary to describe and explain their actions. In Band Rehearsal & Performance, another module I teach, I divide my students into two or three separate ensembles or ‘syndicate groups’ of 4 to 8 players (Collier, 1983). These are based entirely on perceived alignments of style, ability and personality. I intuit and identify chemistry and circulate my students until sedimentary islands begin to form. I attempt to inculcate each of these groups with an informed discussion of style, using my language to project shared outcomes.
The demands of popular music performance require a smaller group of learners and a more focused sphere of study. A suitable repertoire is introduced and students work through a rehearsal regime to master this material. It is practice as research and course ILOs emerge naturally as an outcome of the rehearsal process. As a student’s awareness of the material grows, their observations become more detailed and their interactions more sophisticated. Peer feedback functions here as a kind of continuous assessment and often takes the form of Mediated Peer Feedback (MPF). This is elicited and qualified through multilateral discussions between individuals within the ensemble. These are mediated by the teacher in relation to shared goals, established learning targets and a climate of positive mutual support. Hattie describes this process as ‘feedback in motion’ (Hattie, 2012, p.152). It is an extended multilateral conversation, evolving over a period of months, episodic, interrupted, but interwoven with strong narrative threads. These exchanges are often detailed and solution oriented. Players effect change through the strength of their ideas, the elegance of their discourse and the significance of their involvement. The increased frequency of feedback as ‘ongoing self-assessment’ means that more considered attention can be paid to specific elements of the music. As these skills rise in sophistication, contributors can experience a shared clarity of understanding. As long as students are committed to the process, the trajectory of their learning is dictated by the demands of the material. The convergence of TLAs and ILOs means that constructive alignment occurs naturally as a guided experience.
Conditions for the successful implementation of Mediated Peer Feedback
The ILOs for a course like Band Rehearsal & Performance are axiomatically divergent. They rely integrally on the participation of students to shape ongoing questions of technical and aesthetic consideration. The extraordinary challenges of teaching a course like this actually lie in balancing the desires and expectations of the musicians involved, while maintaining the integrity of the music and providing a forum in which individual players are able to express themselves. Here again, Hattie stresses the importance of ongoing assessment as the primary driver of learning. He calls for the promotion of ‘student assessment capabilities’. On, ‘the fundamental premise’ that ‘all students should be educated in ways that develop their capability to assess their own learning’ (Hattie, 2012, p.141).
I believe Mediated Peer Feedback to be the main driver for learning in Band Rehearsal & Performance. But its adoption proposes certain philosophical questions as to the role of the teacher. During MPF, it is the dictates of the song that impose a regime of musical acuity; players submit to the accepted intentions of the song. In effect, the music is the final arbiter. This temporary abdication of authoritative control allows a teacher to enter into the music making process with their students. And this engenders the accruation of a Theory Y environment, in which creativity and experimentation can prevail. Music is experienced in its actualization. The ability to achieve this as a group relies on aspects of trust and respect, but also on aspects of competition, affection and comradery. It is my belief that a student music ensemble requires the propagation of Theory Y conditions to thrive. The experience of music making, its physical properties, its artistic and technical challenges provide optimal stimulus for discussions. This level of shared activity emphasizes the role of formative assessment as ongoing and inseparable from teaching. Biggs & Tang (2009, p.150) attribute the skills of lifelong learning to ‘informed self-direction’ and describe it as the ability to ‘use metacognitive skills to work strategically towards solving novel problems.’ I believe MPF furnishes a subtext over which these kinds of deep learning can occur.
Making students assessment literate
The skills acquisition implicit in instrumental practice and performance can be highly specific. But the properties of music are multifold. If insights drawn from one discipline are to be proved truly useful, they must interpenetrate other modes of musical experience across the entire field of study and students must begin to draw meaningful parallels between related disciplines. The move from ‘quantitative’ into ‘qualitative’ forms of knowledge provides us with a useful conceptual metaphor here (Biggs & Tang, 2009, p.79). As the depth of our knowledge of a subject grows, our understanding takes a composite form and we begin to interact with it on multiple perspectives. This means balancing the requirements of functional and declarative development in order to create constructive alignment in the student. Without foresight, a gap in congruence between declarative and functional forms of understanding can occur.
I learned this while teaching Music Technology Skills, a course on creative solutions for Ableton Live digital audio software. The teaching challenges were significant: multiple modes of interaction and an array of skills to acquire. Having temporarily given up projector led class instruction in favour of individual tuition, I became so immersed in the student acquisition of software skills that I neglected crucial aspects of aesthetics and composition. As the time arrived for students to review their first series of works, it became clear that if I expected them to discuss their work in terms of: form and structure, timbre and texture, rhythm and harmony, performance and production, or technical and artistic design, I was going to have to offer them an education in it. When it came to review their work through guided peer assessment, the students were honest and forthcoming, but I quickly realized I had not prepared them to engage with their work in an informed way. There was a disconnect between functional and declarative understanding. The technical imperatives of this class led me to omit compositional aesthetics from our line of inquiry. Perhaps these critical aspects should have been taught in a corresponding module, but they certainly necessitated thinking about if I was going to elicit informed debate. I have vowed to explore the aesthetic considerations of artistic practice before our next series of audio presentations.
An imposed dichotomy in declarative and functional learning
Mediated Peer Feedback is certainly an important instrument for student learning in creative practice. A study by Lejk & Wyvill, as quoted in (Biggs & Tang, 2009, p.219) found student self-assessment to be ‘not very effective’, and suggests that in relation to assessment, ‘the fairest way is to use peer assessment following an open discussion...’. I expect my students to become self-critical about their work, but it can be difficult to extract objective insights from students directly. An authentic discussion of craft between contemporaries can prove to be more rewarding.
In Songwriting Skills & Techniques, in an attempt to challenge my students to become more self-reflective, I elected to take a two-staged approach to our learning. I spent the entire first term teaching concepts in songwriting technique through the analysis of works by great songwriters. We explored harmonic progression, lyrical devices and conceptual models. I tried to break up the density of my content with activities in poetic writing and videos of artists and source material. For the students, there was a great influx of vocabulary imported from music theory, poetic techniques and songwriting conventions. As we worked through the material, we began to know each other. Throughout this time, I continued to forecast that in the New Year we would be writing and performing songs for each other, but the actually practice of songwriting did not enter into our shared study. Then in January of the school year, I flipped the course from one of declarative discourse to practice based research.
I never questioned the rational of this approach; it evolved intuitively from a strong feeling that a thorough study of songcraft would need to take place before the art of songwriting could begin in earnest. By the time I had run out of anything I, or anyone else, could say about songwriting, it was time for the creative process to begin. And here again, I relied on the participation of a core group of responsive and motivated students, who being further along in their songcraft, could initiate the process and open the way for other students to contribute.
The class now revolves around an open forum, featuring performances by students within the group. These are followed by a mediated discussion of the work in relation to style, musicality, poetic, harmonic and rhythmic elements, compositional form and technique. Days in which no performance is prepared are spent working in ‘buzz groups’ (Biggs & Tang, 2009, p.141), the question to resolve being: the creation of original material. I think the art of songwriting takes a level of exposed privacy, so I try to partner musicians I feel might work well together and then hide them in unused offices and classrooms throughout the college. These partnerships are continuously refreshed. If they are fruitful, the students are asked to present their work in the following week’s class. All ideas are welcome, from fragments to finished songs and every offering is met with honest and compassionate consideration. Presently this arrangement is offering interesting results. New material is being generating by multiple configurations of young artists and this is being discussed and explored through the open forum. It is my hope that by delaying the formal practice of songwriting in favour of shared declarative discovery, I have given my students the tools and the confidence to engage more fully in the creative process.
An evolution of trust
‘My experience has been that I cannot teach another person how to teach. It seems to me that anything that can be taught to another is relatively inconsequential and has little or no significant influence on behaviour.’ (Carl R. Rogers)
I think we can assume that when Rogers made this statement in 1952, at a conference of teachers entitled: ‘Classroom Approaches to Influencing Human Behaviour’, it was intended to be inflammatory. But it asks a very real question of teachers: can significant learning take place between those who are unready, unwilling or unable to make the crossing? In the resulting paradigm, the teacher becomes as a kind of mediator, facilitating the conditions under which learning can take place and encouraging the student to cross. It would be good I think, to flag this for our students at the outset of our shared enterprise, to remind them that their learning is in their grasp and they bear responsibility for the breadth and depth of the experience. Then as teachers, we need to be very clear in describing the nature and content of our intended field of study and gauge our teaching carefully to insure the most meaningful interaction between student and curriculum. The ideal being that each student feels a personal trajectory in sympathy with the course ILOs.
In relation to this invitation to study, Hattie prioritises ‘warmth’ as the ‘foundational contributor’ supported by true acts of caring demonstrated through, ‘acceptance, affection, unconditional respect, and positive regard for students’ (Hattie, 2012, p.157). If it is through empathy that we establish trust, then it is through intentionality that we establish positive regard. Rogers describes ‘unconditional positive regard’ as, ‘a warm caring...’, ‘a caring which is not possessive, which demands no personal gratification. It is an atmosphere which simply demonstrates, “I care”’ (Roger p.283). I believe that by developing these relational supports structures, through expressions of care, we encourage a student’s self-worth and increase their intrinsic motivation.
A negotiated autonomy based on mutual respect
A University study concerned with the relationship between ‘academic and social climates’ revealed an association between greater student learning and increased teacher/student interaction outside the classroom (Arum & Roksa, 2011, p.56). But only if this relationship was underpinned by high levels of expectation and professional standards in the teacher. It would seem that encouraging deeper ties between teacher and student through casual interaction and idea-exchange can have a beneficial effect on student motivation, but only if these values have already taken root in the teacher.
In regard to Self-determination Theory and the cultivation of autonomous motivation, further studies have shown that systems of reward and punishment only serve to diminish a student’s intrinsic motivation (Deci & Ryan, 2012, p.93). Within the teacher/learner contract, the introduction of threats and/or promises only serves to reinforce a gulf between teacher and student by making explicit reference to external power structures. When a student’s motivation is diminished, their investment in the process of learning also diminishes. Hierarchical impositions of power then only serve to increase stress and disempower students. It is clear that students need support to succeed, but they also need to feel they are in the driver’s seat to fully engage with their learning.
Theorist Stephen Brookfield imagines the ideal teacher as an ‘authoritative ally’ and describes this role as a merger of two distinct virtues: ‘credibility’ and ‘authenticity’. He suggests that the key to mitigating the student/teacher relationship lies in balancing these virtues successfully (Brookfield, 2006, p.56). He links qualities like ‘expertise’ and ‘conviction’ to credibility and ‘responsiveness’ and ‘disclosure’ to authenticity (Brookfield, 2006, p.73). As a learner, I place a high value on these qualities; as a teacher, I try to live up to them in my practice. Maintaining the balance of authority and ally roles in relation to the changing needs of students is a challenge, but it can also be a source of integrity. As the relationship develops, one becomes more perceptive of the individual. In time, if our individual goals share common values and we are genuine in our intention, a symmetry of purpose begins to form.
Meaningful student/teacher exchanges often occur outside the formal relationship. These can involve very fundamental concerns: ambitions, disputes or anxieties. It is in surmounting these kinds of obstacles that a student can experience significant personal breakthrough. If one is not leading through the dictates of reward and punishment; if the student is expected to discover the intrinsic value of the relationship, then a serious investment of belief has to be placed in the teacher as a ‘gifted ally’. At key times in the relationship, a teacher has to display the power and purpose of their ‘allegiance’. These ‘displays’ may be acts of declarative knowledge: the linking of disparate ideas or the placing of events into meaningful context. Or, they may be acts of functional knowledge: the lifting or performing of a difficult musical passage. Always though, they contain an element of care: ‘I care about you; I care about this.’ And, it is this ‘care’ that translates into motivation, action and a shared outcome. No human being is flawless, but if a teacher can achieve authenticity of purpose and integrity of action, they can gain a student’s trust and significant learning can occur.
Leading through emotional intelligence
In the absence of punitive power structures, a worthy ally expresses their authority through good leadership. Learning is a primary human endeavour and there is a lot more flowing between teacher and student than information; there are ways of being and acting, codes of care and respect, philosophical departures. I believe the attributes of good leadership to be highly valuable in relation to the teacher/learner contract.
One man who has proven his ability to lead is Doug Pederson, head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles. No one associated with American Football would have predicted a Super Bowl win for the Eagles’ in 2018. They had never won it in their history and as the playoffs began, their most valuable player, quarterback Carson Wentz was out of the lineup with a knee injury. And yet, through the skillful articulation of highly evolved principles, Coach Pederson led his team to their first Super Bowl victory. Kristen Dudley, founder of consultancy firm Co-Create, attributes Pederson’s incredible success to 6 core leadership qualities (Dudley, 2018). The guiding principles that underlie these qualities are highly significant for the practice of teaching.
Practice self-reflection and lead with emotional intelligence.
Exercise real compassion in relation to your students.
Establish a culture of trust through the integrity of your actions.
Build meaningful relationships.
Practice positive regard and greet adversity as opportunity.
Motivate students through the authenticity of your convictions.
I have tried to show an application of the ‘authoritative ally’ concept and the establishment a ‘Theory Y’ environment in my practice through the intelligent use of Guided Teacher Role-play and Mediated Peer Feedback. These experiments have led me to place much greater emphasis on guided peer to peer learning. I would like to explore and consolidate these techniques further, as a means to increasing student involvement and enhancing intrinsic motivation.
I have discussed the importance of balancing ‘declarative’ and ‘functional’ forms of knowledge in achieving constructive alignment. A growing awareness of the evolving relationship between student, teacher and curriculum is bringing to light the fundamental importance of carefully gauging my ILOs. I am coming to realize that if I get this aspect right, student learning will occur more effortlessly. I would like to revise my class ILOs, with the intention of balancing aspects of functional and declarative knowledge to create a more effective trajectory for my modules.
In the past, I think I emphasised quantity of instruction over quality. I have since found that by reducing the scope of our study, I may actually increase the depth of student understanding. I no longer use technical terms as loosely as I once did and I ask for qualification from my students more readily. I would like to instigate these principles into my teaching practice by creating more course specific resources for my students.
Arum, R. & Roksa, J. (2011) Academically Adrift: Limited learning on college campuses (Chicago IL: Chicago University Press).
Biggs, J. & Tang, C. (2009) Teaching for Quality Learning at University (3rd Edition) (Maidenhead: Open University Press).
Brookfield, S. (2006) The skillful teacher: on trust, technique and responsiveness in the classroom (2nd ed.) (San Francisco CA: Jossey-Bass).
Collier, K.G. (1983) The Management of Peer-group Learning: Syndicate Methods in Higher Education (Guildford: Society for Research into Higher Education).
Deci, E.L. & Ryan, R.M. (2012) The Oxford Handbook of Human Motivation (Ed. R.M. Ryan) (New York NY: Oxford University Press).
Dudley, K.A. (2018) Lead with Emotional Intelligence: 6 Ways of Doug Pederson, Head Coach of the Philadelphia Eagles (Available Online: LinkedIn). Accessed: 15.02.2018
Hattie, J. (1999) Inaugural Lecture: Professor of Education University of Auckland
Hattie, J. (2012) Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing impact on learning (Abingdon: Routledge)
McGregor, D. (1960) The Human Side of Enterprise (New York NY: McGraw-Hill).
Nuthall, G.A. (2007) The Hidden Lives of Learners (Wellington NZ: New Zealand Council of Educational Research).
Sheridan, P. (2016) Doug Pederson’s ‘emotional intelligence’ rooted in experience (Available Online: ESPN). Accessed: 11.03.2018