Katie White spends her days working to transform the educational experience for teachers and students. She has been an integral part of her own school system's multi-year journey through educational reform and has assisted systems worldwide in their work toward approaches that honor learning relationships.

Using Self-Assessment to Open Up the Learning Space

…how we act in the world around us is deeply affected by how we see and feel about ourselves.
Sir Ken Robinson (2015)

Self-assessment and goal-setting are processes we know we should do with students but, in reality, we often don’t see the effort yielding worthwhile rewards in our classrooms. We may witness a lack of investment in the process, resulting in over-simplified goals that have little impact on future learning. Understandably, we often give up and invest our time in other places where we will see more authentic thinking by students.

Despite these challenges, it is essential to invite students to self-assess. When they do so regularly and with confidence, we maximize their potential for learning. Leveraging the skills of reflection, self-assessment, and goal-setting will result in a magnified learning process, which leads to both strong responsive instruction and visible student investment. Further, when students engage in this kind of metacognitive work in a meaningful way, our assessment practices, overall, become more authentic.

There is good news on the self-assessment front! Students are setting goals and engaging in reflective practices every day. They do know how to consider where they are and where they want to go. They can figure out which steps they need to take to grow, learn, and expand their experiences in this world. I simply think these processes, which they naturally engage in internally, seem very separate from the self-assessment we ask them to do in schools. Students aren’t connecting the reflection we ask of them to the reflection they actually engage in when playing games, reading for pleasure, riding a bicycle, or navigating their very complex daily lives. This perceived lack of skill may, in fact, be a breakdown between real-life and school-life for them. The same students who will not set goals or design strong action plans are actually, privately, engaging in self-assessment continuously. This is because metacognition and reflection are natural processes.

Consider your own daily growth—you are assessing and setting small goals all the time. You think: I have half an hour…I think I can get that load of laundry started after I do the dishes. You reflect: That conversation didn’t go so well. Maybe next time, I will listen to her reasons for being upset before commenting. You assess: I haven’t compiled everything I need to for this report. I will have to look for more documents to support my ideas. It is natural to engage in this cycle of assessment and future action when we are engaged in a strong purpose (getting chores done, maintaining relationships, completing a task for work) for a clear audience (our families, our friends, our employers).

When we fail to be introspective, there are reasons and these same reasons exist for students in our classrooms. We struggle to be truly and authentically reflective when:

  • We aren’t clear about expectations, timelines, criteria for success, hidden agendas, purpose, or audience
  • We don’t care much about what others (including our potential audience) think of our choices
  • We are used to success in one paradigm and the paradigm we are now in has very different expectations and boundaries
  • We know what is wrong but we don’t know how to fix it; our toolkit is not big enough to address concerns and challenges

For self-assessment and goal-setting to be meaningful, we have to believe in our students’ ability to care about what they are learning, to identify their own responses to experiences, to relate this to criteria, and to set achievable and meaningful goals.

Here are some ways to begin the journey of strong self-assessment and goal-setting with students:

Invite them to think about their thinking and feelings often. Begin early (five year olds can share thinking and feelings, too!) and make it part of your language every day. Ask questions about decisions students have made, their reasons for those decisions, what they are most pleased with, and what they would do differently next time if they could.

Work toward learning experiences with an authentic purpose and audience for your students (i.e. an audience other than you). Students who are engaged in what they are creating and exploring, reflect naturally. This may mean that students need choice in what they are doing and for whom they are doing it.

Be clear about criteria for growth and proficiency. Use language everyone understands. For example, instead of “Strong clarity of language” try, “Your audience was able to get inside your head.”  Discuss learning in terms of both product and process. If a student is lacking an element, discuss it and help them figure out how to develop that element next time. For example, if a student has a weak introduction to an essay, explore how to develop it through a template to organize thinking, or by developing strong questions before beginning to write.

Let students choose their own goals. If students do not set their own goals, they may slip into “compliance mode,” which rarely means authentic learning.

Confer with students one-on-one. Rich conversations about personal growth are most successful when they are with someone we trust. As students improve at self-assessment, these conversations will naturally occur with their peers. When you hear students discussing learning with each other, you know you have facilitated a truly authentic experience!

Ensure self-assessment and goal-setting lead to increased proficiency. When students see their efforts leading to better assessment results, they will feel the effort is worth the reward. Even better, when students are driven by a meaningful audience and purpose, even marks won’t matter as much as what their audience thinks. This is the sweet spot of learning!

Think of these processes as the beginning and middle of learning; not the end. This process should occur often in the learning journey. When it occurs at the end, it may be perceived as “just another thing to do for my teacher.”

Marvel at the brilliance of your students. When students are reflecting, goal-setting, and taking action that results in learning, everyone will be astounded at what can be achieved!


Robinson, K. (2015). Creative Schools. New York: Penguin Publishing Group.

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