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Exploration to Mars... or Not? An Exercise with Split-Screen Electronic Peer Review

Activity and Starting Point page by L.A. Guertin , Penn State Univ. Delaware County, Earth Science.
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Split-screen technology is utilized for an electronic peer review assignment that has students justify whether humans should continue their investigations of the Red Planet or not.

Used this activity? Share your experiences and modifications

Learning Goals

This exercise assists students in developing and communicating logical reasoning through writing. The electronic peer review provides students the opportunity to further enhance their critical thinking skills and some basic computer skills (emailing or uploading file attachments, creating a split screen in MS Word). In addition, the topic of Mars exploration (should we or shouldn't we) is one that encourages students to connect science objectives with societal values and priorities.

Context for Use

This exercise should be given as an assignment outside of class with technology facilitating the procedure. Students and the instructor only require access to a computer connected to the internet and email. The assignment can be given over a two-week period - one week for the students to write their papers, the second week for the peer reviews to occur.

Teaching Materials

Provide students with the following assignment:
With the success of the Mars Pathfinder mission, the United States has been focusing much energy and financial resources into further exploring the Red Planet. Should NASA be exploring Mars? Why/why not? Research past, present, and future missions to Mars. Examine their scientific missions and financial costs. Utilize this information in a one-page, typed summary. Be sure to include the significance (or lack of) Martian knowledge to science and society. Your summary will be peer-reviewed by a fellow classmate.

When distributing this assignment to the students, it is helpful to them if they see the peer review sheet that will be used on their paper. An open-ended form will provide students the most feedback.

Students should type their paper using MS Word and NOT include their name anywhere in the text. Tell students to use their last name as the file name, then email you the file. If faculty do not wish to conceal student identity from one another, then the faculty member can forward on the papers to another student. For anonymity, faculty can rename the files before forwarding the email attachment. To simplify distributing the files for peer review, an instructor may want to consider having two students read each other's papers.

Conducting a split-screen electronic peer review: A split screen allows a student to see the text of the document they are reviewing on the top half of the screen, while the student can type in their comments in the bottom-half window. The "split" in the bottom window is actually the end of the same document. When the file is saved, the original document and newly typed comments are all in one file. To set up a split screen in MS Word, instruct students to:
  • Open the document to be reviewed.
  • On the top menu, click on "Window," then pull down to "Split."
  • Students can scroll through the document in the top window while answering the instructions from the peer review guidelines in the bottom window.
When a student concludes their electronic peer review, they should save the file and send as an attachment back to the instructor. The instructor can then review the comments and send the file back to the original student writer.

Teaching Notes and Tips

  • Be sure students are clear with the assignment instructions - both for completing the written assignment and conducting the peer review. You may want to complete a mock peer review in the classroom before giving this assignment.
  • Give students enough time to complete the assignment.
  • Decide whether you want students to reveal their identities to each other for the peer review or remain in anonymity. This will decide if you need to rename files before you send them on for peer review.
  • Save the student files in a folder on your computer that is not in your email attachments folder. This way, the assignments will be easy to find and review.


Assessment is conducted by the students using an open-ended form. An instructor can decide if the peer review is the final grade for the assignment, or if the instructor uses the same form and averages the two grades. However, keep in mind that one of the advantages of doing electronic peer review is that it saves the instructor time by not having to grade papers.

References and Resources

Additional nonscience assignments that utilize split-screen peer review.