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Fostering student engagement and learning through PeerWise

A tool to help students become involved in peer community, content engagement and assessment- and that is free to use? Sounds too good to be true – meet PeerWise. 

What is PeerWise? 

PeerWise is an online platform in which students can create, answer, rate and comment on multiple-choice questions. 

Professor Susan Howitt has been using PeerWise in her biology courses for many years and has published several papers on the teaching and learning impacts. Watch this short video for some of her team’s insights from her recent presentation at the Research School of Psychology.  

PeerWise Presentation by Susan Howitt

Susan has published several papers on the teaching and learning impacts of using PeerWise. Three of the several significant benefits she has identified are: 

  • motivating students’ engagement with course content 
  • development of students’ evaluative judgement and assessment literacy 
  • time and energy efficient feedback to students and teaching staff. 

How does PeerWise work? 

PeerWise is easy to set up and runs in parallel to the rest of the course, with students writing questions and comments at any time. All activity remains anonymous to students, however teachers are able to view the identity of participants and have the ability to delete inappropriate submissions, and if necessary seed the repository to model good questions. Modelling good questions can also take place outside PeerWise, for example polling during lectures can provide immediate feedback on student understanding and can also be used to discuss question structure. Susan finds it works best if some marks, rewarding both questions and comments, are allocated to PeerWise participation (e.g. 5% of the course grade). She also uses PeerWise questions in the final exam and students know this from the start of the semester. With this setup, PeerWise runs as an effective peer-learning community with very little input from staff.

Benefits of PeerWise 

Generating a question requires students to think carefully about course content and how it might be assessed. The act of creating plausible distracters (multiple-choice alternatives) requires students to consider misconceptions, ambiguity and possible interpretations of concepts. Explanations and comments require students to express their understanding of a topic with as much clarity as possible. This acts to develop their written communication skills and deepen their understanding. Some students show considerable creativity and humour in developing scenarios to apply course content, helping to engage their peers. 

While multiple-choice assessments are often criticised because they may limit learning to identification of factual information, strategies that incorporate opportunities for the development and evaluation of questions can generate higher-order learning outcomes. The value of PeerWise is that it facilitates sustained interactions involving making judgements as students see and evaluate both questions and comments written by other students. PeerWise provides a space where students are exposed to a range of examples of both questions and comments, potentially allowing them to develop a shared understanding of standards. Applying these standards to multiple-choice questions shifts the focus from simply identifying a correct answer to giving students agency through self-assessment, reflection and justification of opinions.

A further advantage to both students and teachers is the generation of a large question bank. Answering questions in a drill-and-practice fashion reinforces learning. Students not only have access to a large bank of questions but are also shown how others have answered the same questions, allowing them to gauge how well they are doing in the course. PeerWise is an excellent source of questions for teachers to use in assessment and in-class polling, as well as providing feedback on what students consider important and their common misconceptions. 

PeerWise is freely available – if you would like to use PeerWise in a class you are teaching and are ready to get started, please request an instructor account: 

June 2021

Selected publications by Susan: 

Higgins D., Dennis A., Stoddard A., Maier A.G. & Howitt S. (2019). ‘Power to empower’: conceptions of teaching and learning in a pedagogical co-design partnership. Higher Education Research & Development, 38:6, 1154-1167. DOI: 10.1080/07294360.2019.1621270  

Howitt S. (2017). Using the student voice in curriculum transformation. Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia Inc Conference 2017. Presentation. 

Rivers J., Smith A. B., Higgins D., Mills R., Maier A. G. & Howitt S. M. (2017). Asking and answering questions: Partners, peer learning, and participation. International Journal for Students as Partners, 1(1). DOI: 10.15173/ijsap.v1i1.3072  

Chen L., Howitt S., Higgins D. & Murray S. (2021). Students’ use of evaluative judgement in an online peer learning community. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, in press. 

Professor Susan Howitt is a Lecturer and Convener at the Research School of Biology and the Head of the Biology Teaching and Learning Centre.