With the office closed, the last week has been a great time to clear my head, reflect on 2014 and prepare for the year ahead.  It’s really been a great week. I got to spend some time with family, do some reading and relax.

I also had some free time for my mind to wander and this week it landed on education and schools.  Specifically, one provocative thought about the teaching environment:

  • Why don’t students get to see the work of their peers?

The paradigm for schooling today is pretty straightforward.  The teacher dispenses knowledge, assigns readings, and assigns homework to the students.  The students complete their work and submit their assignments back into the teacher.  In most cases it’s a pretty one-dimensional transaction of knowledge between the teacher and the students.

But this doesn’t quite seem right.  At work, I learn as much from my peers and direct reports as I do from my bosses.  If I only learned from my direct boss I would be severely limiting my ability to learn new lessons and grow professionally.

Some teachers have identified this as a problem and encourage student-to-student learning in class discussions, which I think is good.  However, why not take it a step farther and make all student work public to the other students in the class?  Papers, homework, assignments – everything.  That way every student in the class can see how other students approached the same problems and learn from multiple angles.

Or even better – why stop at just letting students see their peer’s work?  Why not let students see the work of every student who has ever taken their course before (perhaps anonymizing work from years past).  That way each student not only gets to learn from their current classmates, but can also learn from all of the students who have come before them.

One of the things that bothers me most about academics is that most of the work is completely throw away.  Nearly every paper I’ve ever written, every assignment I’ve ever completed was trashed the day the class ended.  What if the work I did in school lasted forever – as a lesson for future students?  That way spending extra time on my final paper wouldn’t simply be wasted effort, it would serve to teach future generations.  Also, wouldn’t it motivate students to work even harder knowing that their assignments had the potential to live forever as an example to others?

This solution also goes to address probably one of the most frequently asked questions when it comes to completing written work in school: how long should my paper be?

I feel like many teachers struggle to guide students on the overall length of their written work because most times length doesn’t matter at all – it’s all about the content.  The best advice I ever heard form a teacher was: your paper should be as long as it has to be, but absolutely no longer.

However, if a teacher kept all of the work that had ever been written for a specific assignment – she could list statistics on the overall length of the work and the grades received.  That way, teachers could statistically show students how long papers have been that received each grade level and analyze any correlation between length and grade.

Teachers could also highlight two or three of the best and worst papers from past years and annotate them, highlighting the significant ideas, structures, thesis statements, etc. – showing students the anatomy of both great and mediocre work.

What a missed opportunity.  If teachers made student work public, it would allow for a much more effective and collaborative working environment.

Education and Learning from Peers
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  • Simon Dexter


    I took some Coursera classes recently — they actually require peer review. I had to grade 4 assignments from other students in the class. The work is also submitted on github for everyone to see (and I can reference it at a later time). I suppose they can use peer assessments as a heuristic for student’s performance but that’s a side benefit.

    I hope it’s just a matter of time before these practices are broadly adopted by academia.

    Great thoughts!

  • Oh cool – that’s great to hear. I think we’re going to see a lot of changes in education over the next 5 years.