By the time this post appears, the first peer-graded assignment in Cathy Davidson’s Coursera MOOC, “History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education,” will have come and gone, and students will be well into the second. Unlike programming projects, algebra exercises, and multiple-choice questions that can all be reliably graded by a computer, Coursera offloads the task of evaluating essays to students. After the deadline for an assignment has passed, students have a week to evaluate five of their classmates’ essays using a rubric developed by the teaching staff. A student who fails to evaluate his or her classmates does not get a grade for the assignment, and in our course will not be able to achieve the statement of accomplishment “with distinction.” Whether students see that as a chore, duty, or opportunity, the necessary assessment is eventually done–for better or for worse.
Peer grading can be a controversial proposition. When students’ scholarships and internships are riding on their grades, it isn’t surprising that they hesitate to allow their classmates–who know as much as they do about the course material–to have any effect on their final assessment. Instructors scoff at the idea that students can be left to evaluate one another, certain that they will collude so that everyone will receive an A without doing any of the work. In its worst incarnation, peer grading can be a scheme for lazy professors to offload on students the boring work of assessment.