Case Study – Peer Review Corporate Sustainability

As part of a series of case studies, staff at LET sat down to have a conversation with Prof. Volker Hoffmann (SusTec, the Group for Sustainability and Technology) and Erik Jentges (Educational Developer) from the Department of Management, Technology and Economics (D-MTEC) to discuss their corporate sustainability project.

What is the project about?

The course “Corporate Sustainability” aims to enable students to become advocates of sustainable business practices in their later careers. Each year it attracts 150-200 students with diverse disciplinary backgrounds and different educational levels (BSc, MSc, and MAS). We adapted the Six Sentence Argument (6SA) method for this course. The method focuses on enhancing critical thinking skills through structured writing and guided, double-blind peer-review.

What motivated you to initiate the project?

We wanted students to get a clearer picture of what sustainability really is. In the course, they develop not only a deeper understanding of corporate sustainability but also the skills to give and receive feedback.

How did you do it?

At the core are four topics that relate to the sustainability of corporations. These are assessment, strategy, technology, and finance. We developed digital learning modules (videos, some with interactive elements) that explain key concepts to support the most relevant and difficult parts of the lecture. Also, we want to develop students’ critical thinking skills. In e-modules, students learn to formulate concise and short arguments with the 6SA method. The core idea builds on the assumption that writing is thinking.

In the e-modules, students face a decision (a micro case based on the lecture content) and argue for their preferred course of action using a logical structure of exactly six sentences. Each sentence fulfils a specific function in the overall argument and has a 20-word limit. A clear grading rubric enables students to assess 6SAs in double-blind peer reviews. These have been continuously adapted and improved since 2015. The specialized online tool “peergrade” also helped us to conduct a smooth process – for both students and teachers.

Through the peer assessment, students engage critically with their peers’ arguments and receive constructive feedback on their own arguments. With the 6SA exercise, students learn to argue with clarity, and it helps them to reflect on the way they and others think.

During the second half of the semester, students work in diverse teams to prepare mock debates, consulting strategies, economic models and campaign videos. In this phase, they are coached by several postdoctoral and doctoral researchers from SusTec, the Group for Sustainability and Technology. The students then present their projects and display their skills in a group puzzle session and are debriefed in the following final lecture session. Students receive grades for both individual and group performance and can earn a bonus on their exam grade when completing the critical thinking exercises.

Did you have the support you needed for the project? Is there additional support you wish you had had to help you to achieve your goals?

The project received funding from different sources. This helped us to hire academic staff to assist the development of new teaching approaches and the production of high-quality videos. In addition, we received specialist guidance in the instructional design and production of videos.

Please describe some of the key outcomes of the project

With regard to our feedback modules, we think that the quality of the argumentation and peer reviews has increased over the years. For example, we learned that the effective design of such peer assessment exercises for students requires training on how to give constructive feedback and that it should involve several feedback loops to support the development and refinement of critical thinking skills. Overall, the course now integrates many innovative teaching elements and was a finalist in the 2018 ETH KITE award.

How did the project impact learners or the way in which you teach?

When students are able to write better and concise arguments that convince critical readers, and if they can give constructive feedback to arguments that are being made to justify strategic decisions, then they are able to actively shape good decisions in a company setting – they can be change-makers for corporate sustainability. The students were motivated by the new teaching approaches such as the supporting videos, interactive questions inside the videos, and the critical thinking exercises. Peer assessment is “homework” for the students, but they know that they can earn a bonus on their exam grade – and they are already rehearsing for some parts of the final exam.

With regard to students’ learning, the peer review process itself is convincing. What is unique to our teaching situation is the incredible diversity in the classroom. A 19-year-old Swiss environmental science student may be sitting next to a 25-year-old Chinese student who is pursuing a master’s degree in management, who in turn sits next to a 35-year-old American part-time student with a PhD in chemistry and a management position with responsibilities for 20 employees in a multinational company. Peer feedback is a powerful solution to bridge these gaps of different levels of experience and cultural backgrounds. It allows younger students to write a creative and brilliant argument without being intimidated by more senior students. It allows a shy and quiet student to gain confidence by formulating a convincing argument whose strengths are recognized in their peers’ feedback. It creates a space for older students to learn how to coach younger classmates with constructive feedback to improve their reasoning.

That is why at D-MTEC, we use peer feedback in other courses as well. Students learn more when actually giving feedback compared to when only submitting an assignment.

What lessons learned do you want to share with your colleagues?

At the beginning, it was a lot of work and many people were involved, but it was worth it. Today, with regard to the critical thinking exercises, we have continuously refined our processes. Every student writes three reviews, thereby ensuring that everyone also receives much more feedback than a single lecturer could provide. The main work for lecturers is providing an overview of the themes in the arguments and summarizing the activity for all students. This lets them know that their individual contribution becomes part of a collective intelligence. There are always truly smart and innovative solutions that need to be shared with the whole class. Also, there is little effort involved in re-grading/moderating student questions about feedback, because we train students to write helpful and considerate feedback and make them aware of that they also have to learn how to receive feedback, especially if it is feedback that they don’t want to, but need to hear.

For the production of videos, we recommend planning enough time and engaging with video experts and instructional designers early on. Especially writing a concise script for a short video requires a surprising amount of time until it effectively conveys your key points.

If you are interested in applying these concepts in your own courses please contact LET.

Note: The project received funding from different sources (Innovedum, Emil Halter Foundation, ETH Critical Thinking Initiative).

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