I admit it. When I first began teaching, I thought I knew how to effectively engage students in self-assessment. In retrospect, I realize we may have just gone through the motions at times. It took a few shifts in my mindset and actions before my learners and I fully experienced the benefits of self-assessment.
Was it worth the time and energy to make the shifts? The answer is a resounding yes!
What is self-assessment?
Student self-assessment is a bit more complicated than just asking kids, “So, how do you think you did?”
Effective self-assessment is about making metacognitive processes visible with students throughout the learning journey, not just at the end. Why? Because as Jan Chappuis explains in Seven Strategies of Assessment for Learning, “Research results repeatedly confirm that when students are required to think about their own learning and articulate what they understand and what they still need to learn, achievement improves.” Chappuis is far from alone in this belief; in her book, she refers to the work of Paul Black, Dylan Wiliam, and John Hattie, among others.
By regularly making these thinking processes visible with students, you can demystify the learning process, which removes learning barriers and opens doors of opportunity. Your learners are then primed to engage in self-assessment in productive, worthwhile ways.
What can self-assessment look like?
Successfully incorporating self-assessment into your classroom takes intention, but it’s much easier than you may think. Here are some steps to follow.
1. Show kids the learning process
Most students do not learn to self-assess on their own. Someone needs to show them how. Several scholars including David Boud, in Enhancing Learning through Self-Assessment, assert this.
Demystifying—or unveiling—the learning process can look like this: Students, with the support of their educators and caregivers, practice with examples that illustrate success with a learning goal. Adults then guide students to identify and act on mechanisms that move learning forward in ways that are relevant to them. Guidance can include cues such as:
- What are the learning goals?
- How are the learning goals meaningful to you?
- Where are you in relation to the learning goals?
- What’s next in your learning journey as you work to meet and extend past your goals?
- Who or what can help you?
With repeated practice, these processes become quick yet powerful habits that contribute to students’ learning success, well-being, and self-determination.
2. Be empowering
For me, the journey to improving self-assessment practices started with shifting my mindset about my role. Instead of approaching self-assessment from a learner-manager mindset, which called for a focus on completing self-assessment tasks only at the end of a learning journey, I had to use a learner-empowerer mindset, which allowed me to focus on embedding and building self-assessment throughout the learning journey.
Without this shift, I would just have continued to go through the motions at the end of an instructional unit. My students and I would just have continued to get frustrated when self-assessment “didn’t work.” I explain more about this shift in mindset and provide additional guidance in “The importance of student self-assessment.”
3. Uncover who your students are
There are different ways to effectively engage in self-assessment with learners, and it’s important to figure out what works best for your learners’ context, that is, their strengths, interests, identities, funds of knowledge, and needs.
Effective self-assessment is about making metacognitive processes visible with students throughout the learning journey, not just at the end.
Over time, I learned to work with my students to nurture the culture and conditions for a high-functioning learning team. The foundation of trust and purpose necessary for meaningful partnership in self-assessment processes simply isn’t possible without that.
This looked like regular discussions with students where we translated the learning goal into language that made sense to them and explored how the goal was connected to their interests and aspirations.
4. Require constant self-assessment
After making the important foundational shifts and actions I noted above, I embedded opportunities for self-assessment throughout an instructional unit, not just at the end. For instance, I would embed a one-sentence self-assessment prompt in practice exercises. These would look something like this for writing assignments: On a scale of 1–5, my claim sentence is currently a ___ because ___.
My students and I would use these self-assessment answers to plan next steps, which sometimes looked like adjusting the lesson plan for the next day to allow for more practice or making mixed groups for the next formative exercise. We would also use these frames for peer and teacher feedback processes during the learning journey.
5. Make room for reflection with summative assessment, too
Self-assessment is a valuable strategy when students are engaging in ungraded or other low-stakes tasks. It also has its place in summative assessment.
For end-of-unit and other summative tests, I got into the habit of making sure to include a self-assessment prompt as the last part of the experience. For example, I would ask students to use a provided rubric, circle their level of achievement, and justify their achievement-level circles with examples from their work. Instead of jumping into grading when all the tests were complete, I would begin at the end: by reading each student’s self-assessment.
The changes I made to my approach to self-assessment led to extraordinary results.
Often, after reading through a completed test, I would agree with a student’s self-assessment and could simply write “Agree!” at the end. This saved me hours of grading and commenting time and, most importantly, it ensured students understood exactly why they got the grade they did.
When I disagreed with a student’s self-assessment, it was usually because they assessed themselves too harshly. I would make a note of that on their self-assessment. On the rare occasion that the student’s self-assessment was too lenient, I would make time to meet with them one-on-one to learn more about their thinking and evaluate their work together.
All students received their summative and self-assessment back with my notes. This could happen very fast (sometimes the next day or within the week) because the students did the heaviest lifting in their self-assessment. This process also minimized the number of grade-confusion conversations with students or caregivers. What a relief!
What success looks like
The changes I made to my approach to self-assessment led to extraordinary results.
Students readily engaged in self-assessment practices because they saw how the information they provided was immediately used to meaningfully adjust the learning journey. They also saw how self-assessment provided a clear explanation for a summative grade.
Rather than spending hours marking up summative tasks with feedback the students did not read or use, I reinvested time and energy into student-involved feedback processes that occurred before the summative tasks. This reinvestment ultimately paid dividends: an increase in student success and self-efficacy and a preservation of teacher time and energy.
Suggested next steps
I hope sharing my self-assessment learning journey encourages you to reflect on your own so self-assessment is not a fruitless, go-through-the-motions exercise for you or your students. Reconnecting with the power of self-assessment and shifting your mindset, conditions, and actions can help you continue that journey and ultimately experience success that doesn’t take away from the limited time you have.
In case you find them helpful, here are a few questions that can guide your next steps. Tackle them on your own or with a colleague.
Questions for teachers
- What’s your mindset about self-assessment?
- How do you already partner with your students to nurture a collaborative learning team that supports everyone in the learning processes?
- How do you already embed self-assessment throughout the learning journey?
- What is one next step you can take to include self-assessment throughout the learning journey, not just at the end?
- Who or what will inspire you to keep up the hard work of embedding student self-assessment throughout every learning journey?
Nathan Breeden, content designer on the Professional Learning Design team at NWEA, contributed to this post.
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