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The Gift of Being Honest – Empower Students with Self-Assessment

What Comes To Mind When You Think of “Self-Assessment?”

I’ll admit that I was skeptical. Self-assessment? As in, the students grade themselves? This practice was the topic of discussion at one of our weekly Tuesday-afternoon faculty meetings a few years ago. The term “self-assessment” struck me as a thinly-veiled attempt to boost self-esteem at the expense of providing accurate feedback. How would this actually work?

Different Than What I Expected

Of course, my gut-reaction was laden with unfounded assumptions regarding the nature of self-assessment and the quality of my own feedback. As it turns out, my judgment was off on both counts. In short, “self-assessment” simply means that students evaluate the quality of their work based on clear learning outcomes, taking an inventory of their areas of strength and opportunities for improvement along the way. It is not “self-grading,” or, at least not in the sense that students simply give themselves the highest possible score for the sake of boosting their GPA. Rather, when implemented correctly, this practice encourages “students to be a realistic judge of their own performance and to improve their work.”

By pulling back the curtain and removing the mystique from the grading process, self-assessment can empower students to take ownership of their learning by making them participants in the feedback process. 

As it turned out, their evaluations sometimes proved more useful than mine.

What Does Self-Assessment Look Like?

Despite my initial misgivings about the merits of self-assessment, I decided to keep an open mind and gradually found opportunities to give it a try. While I could recount numerous instances of students experiencing an “ah-ha!” moment as a result of self-assessment, one episode, in particular, stands out as a ringing endorsement for making it a go-to tool for feedback. 

One of my students (let’s call him Chris) had a moment of clarity during a self-assessment following a “fishbowl” conversation. Essentially, a “fishbowl” is a graded discussion in which students are divided into two groups that alternate between sharing ideas and actively listening. Our fishbowl discussion centered around analyzing primary sources and their implications for our understanding of equality under American law. During the conversation, Chris contributed regularly and listened attentively to the insights of his classmates, thus fulfilling the requirements of the activity.

At the end of the discussion, I asked the class, “how do you think that went?” The universal response was “fine.” Just as I expected. Then I passed out a self-assessment rubric and encouraged the students to go deeper. For each of the learning outcomes being assessed, students ascribed to themselves a score of “novice,” “emerging,” “proficient,” or “advanced” with a brief description of why they believed that “grade” matched their performance. For the sake of encouraging honesty and alleviating stress, I assured them that their self-assessments would not have an adverse effect upon their grade for the class. 

As the students filled out the rubric, several assessed themselves out loud  and with full transparency, sparking an informal and fruitful “discussion about discussion.” This was encouraging! Among those students was Chris, who said something to the effect of, “You know, I think I made some good points, and I definitely listened to everybody. But in response to the learning outcome about connecting my ideas with my classmates and building on the comments of my peers…I didn’t really do that at all. I can work on that.”

Chris was not-at-all saddened by this revelation. In fact, he seemed simultaneously amused and inspired by what he correctly perceived to be an opportunity for growth, rather than some type of innate deficiency. Proof of his continued development occurred in our next discussion, in which he consciously and thoughtfully built upon the ideas of his classmates and sought moments of connection. Now, that’s effective communication. I was impressed by his efforts and encouraged that self-assessment had improved his ability to connect with others and share meaningful ideas. 

Try It Out!

Obviously, not every moment of self-assessment will prove to be as fruitful as the one Chris experienced. Each student is different and everyone internalizes these processes differently. But the moments for impact are out there. Furthermore, this practice need not be overly-burdensome or time-consuming. Rather, a well-calibrated set of questions will likely save teachers time in the long run, as they can reuse these self-assessments in a multitude of activities. Check out these simple, yet effective examples:

Example #1

Example #2

These examples offer ways of empowering students to evaluate their level of proficiency within a given skill set and to identify areas for improvement. By reflecting upon these questions, they will “get their bearings” as they navigate their path to mastery. Neither will take up much of your planning time. Both will encourage students to take ownership of their learning.

As a former skeptic, I encourage you to think about one upcoming opportunity that might warrant some self-assessment in your classroom. Are you looking to enhance your students’ communication skills? Ask them to self-assess a socratic seminar or or fishbowl discussion. Is there a first-draft of an essay that’s due soon? How about combining peer-review with self-assessment to paint a more complete picture of student work? In every discipline there are moments in which a careful look at oneself can inspire growth and learning, so try it out in your class and see what happens.

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