ETH Zurich is committed to helping students think critically. As one of the top 10 universities in the world (8th, in fact), the STEM-focused institution is continually innovating its approach to instruction. If ETH wants to keep producing Nobel-winning alumni like Albert Einstein, the university needs to ensure that its courses compel students to think critically, creatively, and outside the box.
ETH has found collaboration, in particular peer feedback, to be one of the most powerful instructional mechanisms for improving critical thinking on campus. Across the university, instructors use peer review to hone skills in reading critically, challenging assumptions or bias, and interrogating scientific literature. Their aim is to equip students with the thinking skills needed to become change-makers.
Of course, building effective, ethical peer review into course work can be logistically challenging, especially with ETH Zurich’s packed under-graduate curriculum. That’s why course deliverers across ETH turn to Eduflow to inspire critical thinking in a variety of ways, without having to worry about the logistics.
To get peer feedback is good; to give peer feedback is better, at least in terms of critical thinking.
That’s the conviction of ETH Assistant Professor Elliott Ash. Elliott incorporates giving and receiving peer feedback into two ETH Masters courses:
- Data Science for Decision Making, a combined social and data science course in which students analyze systems where machine learning and algorithms are used to support expert decision-making by the likes of judges, doctors, and teachers.
- Natural Language Processing for Social Science, a course focused on how text analysis can generate automated statistics from judicial opinion, political speeches, and other forms of text.
To push students to think critically in both courses, Elliott asks students to write, and review, essays from their peers. Writing is a great way to think critically, acknowledges Elliott, but it’s not perfect: “when you're first writing [an essay] and you're doing it on your own, you make shortcuts and skip things and tell yourself, ‘This is probably going to be good.’”
So writing alone isn’t sufficient to create a critical thinker. For Elliott, the process of “giving feedback to other students is the more critical and useful skill for students to develop.” This is where peer review comes in.
Each student reviews a selection of essays written by their course-mates, using a rubric created by Elliott within Eduflow. This exercise hones critical thinking because it forces students to zoom in on the weaknesses of the work. “When you're reading somebody else's work, you take a more objective perspective,” explains Elliott. “And so students identify, ‘Oh, [the essay] is missing this, and this is missing.’ And then they look back at their own papers and are like, ‘Oh, actually I did the same thing.’ Taking that external perspective is critical in academia.”
The built-in rubric is helpful not just in the moment of giving feedback, but also longer term. The rubric models the kind of questions students need to ask of their own work to identify, and correct, weak arguments going forward.
Without Eduflow, Elliott and his teaching assistant would have found peer review activities hard to organize. “Making a system like this on your own would be very clunky and inconvenient. You can't randomize it, so it's nice that the Eduflow platform does that automatically.”
Students seem as enthusiastic as Elliott about the power of peer review, citing the article reviews as “a challenging but rewarding task” in teaching evaluations.
Over in ETH’s Department of Health Sciences and Technology, fellow Assistant Professor Emma Wetter Slack also leverages peer review to hone critical thinking skills. And she uses just six short sentences to do so.
As an immunologist, Emma teaches two courses that incorporate elements of peer review:
- Fundamentals of Food Sciences, a first year under-grad course providing a high level introduction to different topics in food science, from nutrition through toxicology, food processing and food material science. Students gain transferable skills, including writing and presenting at a basic level in German.
- Scientific Skills for Food Sciences, a second year course in which Emma teaches scientific writing in English.
In both these courses, Emma asks students to follow a simple methodology built around peer feedback:
- Write six short sentences summarising an argument, based on factual information provided in the course.
- Anonymously peer review each other’s ‘Six Sentence Arguments’ (or ‘6SAs’), giving feedback based on a rubric.
- Rewrite and strengthen the structure
- Get graded by instructors
Emma was inspired to use this structure by Dr. Erik Jentges, Educational Developer at ETH Zurich’s Department of Management, Technology and Economics. The 6SA method, which Erik invented for ETH’s corporate sustainability course, focuses on enhancing critical thinking skills through structured writing, guided peer-review, and feedback loops. The short ETH Zurich video below explains more:
The 6SA method has really worked for Emma and her students. Writing the condensed structure requires students to ‘steel man’ their arguments, as well as convey their ideas concisely in a foreign language.
And then there are the benefits of the peer review part of the method. Like Elliott, Emma has found that peer review is a powerful way to identify logical errors and weaknesses: “the feedback we've had from the students is that they find the peer review process - going through those questions and reading somebody else's text - to be as informative as writing their own text.”
Like Elliott, Emma also uses customized rubrics to help her students give each other constructive feedback, and receive that feedback with an open mind.
Elliott agrees that the rubric is vital in helping students receive feedback positively. “Because you're looking for potential shortcomings in other people's essays, you’re also learning not to take that personally. If you can provide some constructive feedback and then receive it, you realize it's about the essay, not about the person. I think that's something that's useful to practice.”
At first, Emma tried to do this kind of peer review manually, collecting six sentence arguments on paper and trying to re-distribute them, then get anonymous feedback back to the right people in a timely manner. “This was actually a huge mess,” admits Emma. “We swapped to doing it with Eduflow when we went online during the pandemic, but there’s no way we’re going back to doing it on paper now! It's so much more straightforward, and the students really like it.”
The transferable skills taught by ETH — analysis, argumentation, and critical reasoning — are what allow the university’s graduates to become change-makers in science, technology, engineering, and maths. Armed with the ability to engage critically with ideas ETH graduates push the boundaries of innovation and knowledge. Reviewing their peers, and by extension their own work, is where it all starts.