Teaching Self-Assessment

Thad Curtz

Self-assessment encourages students to reflect on their learning and results in their consciously improving how they learn. Because self-assessment is new for most students, instructors can implement strategies to support the development of students' abilities to assess their own work.

In many learning communities in Washington, students are asked to write formal narrative self-evaluations of their work in the program. This student self-evaluation may or may not be part of the formal transcript. A number of Washington colleges have long traditions of narrative self-assessment: Evergreen, Antioch University, and Fairhaven College at Western Washington University.

 

If the point of evaluating students' work were only to rank them, or to give the teacher a lever for encouraging their efforts, or even to describe the strengths and weaknesses of what they produced, then it would seem clear that teachers should do it by themselves. After all, teachers generally know more about the subject and how to deal with it than students do. They have seen lots of similar work. They can draw on wider experience to establish comparative standards. We hope teachers are more objective and less personally involved in the outcome than each student is.

However, the deepest reasons for asking students to formally assess their own work have little to do with a particular piece of work. They have to do with the students' development over the long run. If we want to emphasize not just what the student did, but what the student learned, and how his or her capacity for work in the future has been affected, then the situation changes.

For one thing, students may well know some things relevant to this new focus of assessment which teachers do not know, and have no way of knowing unless the students say something about them. If they have learned how to write a paper without agonizing over the first paragraph for hours, or if they now pay a new kind of attention to clouds when they go for a walk, or if they think about the late Roman Republic when they watch the news, these changes may say more about the students' education in literature or physics or history than their essays or exams do. Yet this learning may be invisible to a teacher. To make it clear that this learning matters, assessment should contain a space devoted to it.

Of course, we expect pleasure, enduring interest, and the ongoing illumination of experience by ideas to affect the quality of students' academic work as well. We would be dubious about claims of such gains if they weren't eventually reflected in products in some way. And in fact, students need to practice self-assessment to improve the quality of their objective work as well as to remind everyone involved (their teachers, others who read the self-evaluations, and the students themselves) of the importance of relatively subjective gains such as those I just listed.

Of course, we expect pleasure, enduring interest, and the ongoing illumination of experience by ideas to affect the quality of students' academic work as well. We would be dubious about claims of such gains if they weren't eventually reflected in products in some way. And in fact, students need to practice self?assessment to improve the quality of their objective work as well as to remind everyone involved (their teachers, others who read the self-evaluations, and the students themselves) of the importance of relatively subjective gains such as those I just listed.

  • Change is meaningless transition unless it is consciously connected with the return wave of consequences which flow from it. .... Being burned is a mere physical change, like the burning of a stick of wood, if it is not perceived as a consequence of some other action. (140)
  • Thinking . . . is the intentional endeavor to discover specific connections between something which we do and the consequences which result, so that the two become continuous. (146)

Things would be simpler if students really were clear about what their work was like. The problem with self?assessment is not simply that students exaggerate or somehow misrepresent what they produced. And it isn't that students are insufficiently willing to blow their own horns. Many beginning college students are simply not in the habit of reflecting on their own work. In one freshman program I taught, "Reflections of Nature," we asked students to write short cover letters to accompany their work. They wrote four or more short pieces a week about their field observations and the readings for seminar discussion, and their first letter was supposed to select what they judged the two best entries in their accumulated work for five weeks. They were asked, as well, to explain their reasons for selecting those pieces as the best ones, in a couple of sentences each. The striking thing about these first cover letters was how many of the students didn't or couldn't do the second half of this assignment.

Very often, even those who did say something about why they picked the pieces seemed incapable of separating their experience in producing the work from some judgement about the results. They said things like, "I picked this as my best reflections entry because I had a good time writing it." (Readers who are interested in emotional and cognitive development can no doubt produce various explanations for why the reflective distance and decentering called for in this assignment should be difficult or incomprehensible for many 19 year-olds. Those of you who are more interested in the sociological and political functions of the American high school will probably simply note that most American students are never asked to judge their own work; only to submit it to somebody else and to accept that authority's grade as settling the question of how good it is.)

So how can teachers support the development of students' capacities to assess their own work? First, we can assign ongoing practice, beginning with small exercises like our cover letter and progressing to more demanding ones. Second, we can create contexts where alternative or even conflicting assessments are offered. In our program, students frequently participated in small group sessions in which the group looked at and discussed some sample of each student's work in turn.

We can also include student self-assessments as an element of our formal evaluation processes. At Evergreen, narrative evaluations are given instead of grades. Both the faculty member and the student write approximately one page of narrative describing the accomplishments of the quarter. Student self-evaluations and end-of-quarter conferences between faculty and students are an integral part of the College's evaluation system. In the evaluation conferences, there are always two assessments to be compared-one by the student and one by the faculty member. In anticipating such a conference, one tends to wonder, "What will the other evaluation say about that?" That question leads to asking, "How would my work look to someone else, as something independent from me, on its own in the world?" Through these experiences of reflection, writing, and discussion, students gradually learn that there are variances in judgement for which reasons can and should be given. They learn that they themselves have to sort through those, and that their own view of their own work may be habitually inflated or severe.

The other important feature of teaching self?assessment, in my view, is mutuality. Everybody should judge. Everybody should be judged. In our program, when a small group looked at its members' work, it looked at everybody's in turn; and, at least some of the time, it looked at the teacher's version of the assignment too. In evaluation conferences, students were not just asked to assess their own work, then submit their judgements to a "superior" review and critique. Students write assessments of the faculty member's work and of the program each quarter; Evergreen faculty members write self?evaluations of their own work each quarter; and faculty members write evaluations of each other.

This certainly is not a perfectly symmetrical process. Many faculty members do not trade their self?evaluations with students at final conferences, though I think they should. In most conferences, much more time goes to discussing the student's work than the faculty member's. Nonetheless, in my view, the structure of this process is valuable, even when nothing exciting emerges from a particular exchange. The fact that the faculty are engaged in a similar process is important, and often surprising, to the students. The opportunity to read the teacher's own view of the strengths and weaknesses of a program and of his or her own quarter's work makes the process of assessment a mutual one, and locates the teacher as a finite figure, engaged in furthering his or her own education as well as his or her own teaching.

For both teacher and student what is at the center of this process is thinking in Dewey's sense: developing the capacity for the self?reflective assessment of one's activities. This is essential not only in examining and improving the process of teaching and learning, but in understanding the subjects themselves.

 

Article Source:Evergreen State College

 

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