Jan 192016

Dr Simon Coupland, School of Computer Science and Informatics, Faculty of Technology started teaching a first year undergraduate C++ programming module in 2014/15. Another first for the module in 2014/15 was that Mathematics students were enrolled for the first time – some of whom may never have engaged with coding before.

The C++ module is an introduction to programming and this module underpins the complex threshold concepts that students are required to understand as they progress into areas such as Games Programming. Therefore it is critical that students are offered various ways to construct knowledge in line with their preferred learning style(s) on this module as it does form part of the foundation of multiple undergraduate programmes.

Historically, students on the C++ module were tasked with producing a piece of code each week as part of their lab sessions and the previous member of teaching staff would mark each piece of code individually between sessions.

However, knowing that the cohort could be quite varied this year, Simon sought to provide alternative methods of assessing the lab work that would involve the students collaborating and learning from each other.

Following conversations with the ELT Project Officer, Simon identified that a peer marking model for the student’s lab work would help the students to learn collaboratively, foster relationships in their first year and alleviate Simon’s marking workload as the module attracts a large (100+) student cohort.

Following a session that focused on the use of TurnItIn’s PeerMark solution, Simon set up the following scenario:

  • Each week the students will create and submit a piece of C++ code using a TurnItIn PeerMark link during the lab;
  • The following week the students will create a second piece of code and peer mark a colleague’s code; and
  • In the third week, further code is submitted and the previous week’s is peer marked but the peer marked submissions from week one are released in order for students to see each other’s comments on their work.

This is then a rolling plan with a new piece of code being generated each week for review and release over the three week cycle.

Following the first week’s lab session, all students created their C++ code and submitted it via the TurnItIn link in Blackboard. The following week, the majority of students’ seemed to engage with the peer marking aspect and offered feedback to a colleague via the TurnItIn PeerMark function.

However, after this initial flurry of interest, although all students’ continued to submit their weekly piece, very few students re-engaged with peer marking and this trend continued for approximately six weeks until Simon removed the peer marking element and reverted to the traditional model as despite encouragement the students’ were no longer peer marking each other’s work.

As this is the first year that Simon has taught the C++ first year module there is no benchmark for Simon regarding the demographic of the 2014/15 student cohort but Simon feels as though the following factors may have played a role in the students not continuing with the peer marking aspect of the module

  1. Confidence – this is a first year undergraduate module and Simon believes that although the initial novelty of marking each other’s work was appealing, the ongoing peer marking set up may have been daunting for the students who are both confident and not so confident with the subject.
    Simon did, in a later lab session, encourage the students to buddy up and talk to each other during informal peer to peer sessions away from the lab but students who tried to engage in this activity found that their contemporaries would let them down by not honouring appointments and this physical buddying/mentoring approach has also ceased now.
  2. The nature of the cohort – as recorded, this is the first year that Simon has taught the year one C++ module and Simon feels as though the 2014/15 cohort may not have transitioned into HE quite as well as may be required to understand and handle the value and responsibility of a peer marking approach to lab work. However, having not engaged with previous year’s cohorts in this way Simon has no benchmark to help identify whether this cohort is typical or atypical of a first year C++ cohort.
    Also, 2014/15 saw the first Mathematics student enrolments on the first year C++ module. Traditionally, only students who would have engaged with coding prior to coming to University and who are heading toward a career path that involves coding would be enrolled on this module but this year, students studying Mathematics were enrolled and they may not have had any experience of writing code prior to week one of the module. This widens the gap between those in the cohort who are already confident with coding and those who are not and it is surmised that with a less spikey profile of coding skills across the cohort, the assumed issues relating to confidence driving an unwillingness to engage in peer marking would be reduced.
  3. The technology – whilst the technology supported Simon’s approach on the whole Simon would have liked to have seen an automated approach to identifying who had engaged with the peer marking activity on a weekly basis. With this extra functionality, Simon would then have introduced a scenario whereby students who failed to peer mark in any given week would not be eligible to receive colleague’s feedback the following week or until they re-engaged with peer marking. This may have motivated more students to peer mark if their engagement with colleagues in the previous week could be linked to their work being peer marked the following week but this is an assumption and there is no functionality in TurnItIn to support this scenario.

The experiences documented here are valuable for anyone considering a peer marking approach – the key lessons learned can be summarised as:

  • Ensure that students are fully bought into and understand the value of the peer marking approach ahead of embarking on this journey;
  • Get to know the cohort of students and critically evaluate whether they are at a stage where they will not let each other down (virtually or physically);
  • Look for ways to motivate students to peer mark. For example, should the student marking be linked to their assessment this would motivate them to continue to peer mark their colleague’s work; and
  • Do not assume that all students will always want to engage in this type of peer assessment and collaboration.

Other colleagues in the Faculty of Technology are also trialling alternative peer marking models in 2014/15 and it will be interesting to see how successful or otherwise colleagues have been in engaging students in this type of activity and whether Simon’s experience is typical or not.

Click here to read about Dr Catherine Flick’s experiences of introducing a peer marking model to a second year Introduction to Research and Ethics module.


Ian Pettit

ELT Project Officer