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Samah Pirzada: Science classes’ peer review system is counterproductive

By Samah Pirzada

Mar. 6, 2014 12:54 am

The acronym CPR usuallybrings to mental images of heroic lifesaving, but for many sciencestudents at UCLA, it results in stressed evenings hunched in front of a laptop.

Calibrated Peer Review is an online program designed to develop critical thinking skills by giving students the opportunity to evaluate their peers’ work. CPR introduces students to academic writing, including in the field of sciences, and the practice gets them to think critically about their own work. The program is great for professors overloaded with work, but not for students with the same problem.

But the unclear and subjective grading process for CPR assignments limits students’ grading capabilities by requiring them to stick to a strict grading rubric created by the professor. Rather than use a system that forces classmates to compete with one another, professors should craft teaching methods that encourage students to collaboratively understand the course material they’re supposed to be learning.

Arlene Russell, a chemistry professor at UCLA, developed the program in 1999 and UCLA students have been stressed about grading their peers ever since.

Each CPR assignment has three components: writing, calibration training and peer review.

First, students write and submit an essay on a specific topic. Then, students are trained in the evaluation process. Finally, the students are randomly assigned peers’ work to evaluate. All of the grading is anonymous to the students but not to the teachers. In the end, students also evaluate their own work.

This leads to an unnecessarily competitive environment. CPR assignments end up adding to the students’ workloads without actually teaching students the intended lessons about scholarly writing.

Instead of grading and being graded on their ability to grade, students could proofread and discuss scholarly papers – both professional and peer-generated – in order to improve their scientific writing skills. This way they still are forced to think critically about their peers’ and their own work, and their grades do not depend on a vague rating system.

The grading scale for the assignments is set at one through 10, but students are penalized for not giving grades within two points of the other student graders. This seems like a way to ensure fair grading, but actually leads students to hedge the grading so they don’t lose points – grading an excellent, but perhaps imperfect, assignment with a seven instead of a nine because the margin for error is smaller.

CPR adds extra steps to students’ workloads, essentially forcing them to act as both the student and the teacher. Though graduate students are expected to be able to effectively evaluate the work of students during their time as teaching assistants, undergraduates shouldn’t be expected to take on the same responsibility. After all, undergraduates signed up to learn science and haven’t made the additional commitment to learn science education.

The added requirements leave little time for students using CPR to actually learn the key concepts of a class.

Students are given so much work within these lab classes that it’s really hard for us to take the time to actually learn the stuff we are being tested on through CPRs,” said Sunny Shah, a third-year neuroscience student. “Most students actually just follow a format of writing instead of taking the time to relate concepts given in class with the CPR write-ups.

Rigid adherence to the professor’s rubric simply does not coincide with the stated purpose of critical thinking about a peer’s writing. Instead students should be encouraged to think creatively and attack the topic from different angles, not forced to follow one professor’s structure of academic writing.

Beyond limiting creative thinking and attention to a student’s work, CPR also fosters a harsh, competitive classroom environment that threatens to stifle the cooperation that often leads to the best academic work.

Peer review makes it a competition – if you find out that someone graded you more harshly, you grade (more harshly) the second time,” said Holly Pham, a third-year psychobiology student.

This isn’t to say that peer evaluation has no place in the classroom. Reading others’ work can clue students into ideas that they otherwise would not encounter.

But this kind of peer engagement should be an opportunity for cooperation, a chance to build upon each others’ thoughts, not as a time to dock points off of classmates’ work in order to bolster one’s own grade.

Right now students feel too pressured to give the answers they think the professor wants to hear instead of the answers they believe are right, which limits critical thinking instead of promoting it.

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