While student self-assessment is not a brand new concept, it has emerged as an essential aspect of effective formative assessment strategies and processes. There is general consensus that self-assessment is positive and has many benefits for students, but it is seldom implemented in many classrooms (Brown & Harris, 2013). As well, although self-assessment does lead to many positive outcomes, those outcomes can’t be assumed; the quality of the self-assessment process (how it’s taught and how it’s executed) is what distinguishes productive from counter-productive experiences. Student self-assessment is effective, as long as we’re mindful of how we teach it and remain aware of the potential limitations.
The Upside of Self-Assessment
Student self-assessment is essentially about students identifying both the alignment and discrepancy between their work and the agreed upon performance criteria. Then students would decide on their next steps through a personal feedback loop. The promise of self-assessment is that it will raise achievement by teaching students important self-regulatory processes (Hattie & Timperley, 2007; Ramdass & Zimmerman, 2008). Barry Zimmerman’s (2011) three phases of the self-regulatory process – forethought, performance, and reflection – all draw upon the necessary metacognitive competencies that allow students to be more self-regulatory about their learning. The big idea with Zimmerman’s model is that self-assessment, as part of the more comprehensive self-regulatory process, is not just an after-the-fact exercise; students must be immersed in the process before, during, and after the learning.
As well, there is an emerging body of evidence suggesting that self-regulation can be improved through the self-assessment process, and that self-assessment can lead to increased motivation, engagement, and efficacy, which reduces the students’ dependency on their teacher (Sadler, 1989). The residual effect of this is a balancing of the workload for teachers. Self-assessment should not be utilized simply to make students do the teacher’s work; however, when effective self-assessment is utilized teachers can use their minutes more strategically to support the students who might still be struggling. We’ll explore this more intimately later in this post. Overall, self-assessment has the potential to be a positive, beneficial experience for students, but there are some potential limits we need to be mindful of if self-assessment is to fulfill this promise.
The Potential Limits of Self-Assessment
Although self-assessment has many promised benefits, those benefits cannot be assumed since self-assessment is a process that requires some attention to detail. It is easy to say, write, or even tweet that we should let the kids do it or that the students know better than we do, but those statements, if not contextualized, undervalue the importance of the self-assessment process following sound assessment principles. Self-assessment: Yes, but we have to be aware of some potential limitations.
- It has to be taught well. For students to capitalize on self-assessment we need to teach students how to do it. First, they need to understand what the task is asking of them and what the performance criteria is; co-constructing the performance criteria will accelerate this process. Students will also need guidance on how to identify the discrepancies between what they’ve produced and what was expected. With foundational knowledge and skills this is not overly complicated, but with more complex demonstrations (i.e. writing) it can be due to the inferences required of students. Rubrics describe quality, but there is no straight-line between the rubric and a specific writing sample. Accurate inferences are the result of the clear interpretation of the performance criteria, which is something many experienced teachers find challenging, let alone the students. On the back end, proper metacognitive opportunities that focus on next steps instead of ego-based assertions (i.e. I’m a good writer) also require guidance. Without the proper guidance from the teacher, students may flounder and find the self-assessment process at best, ineffective, or at worst, a waste of time.
- Not all students are ready to self-assess. One of the frustrations teachers experience with the self-assessment process is that some students do it well while others don’t do it at all. While there are likely several reasons for this, one thing to remember is that our novice learners may not be ready to self-assess. Self-assessing one’s work requires a level of sophistication that some students haven’t reached yet. At the novice level, students are often still focused on individual tasks, questions of right/wrong, and not yet ready to reflect on processes and big picture strategies. This means that some of our proficient or advanced students can engage in the self-assessment process while the teacher works more directly with those still needing support; this is the redistribution of minutes we discussed earlier. This level of differentiation is respectful of where learners are along their growth trajectories. We want students to view the self-assessment process as a positive opportunity; having students prematurely self-assess could have the opposite effect.
- Be aware of potential inaccuracies. With assessment, including self-assessment, gleaning reliable information is essential. If students are drawing wrong conclusions about their work then the process of self-assessment will not produce the desired effect. Despite all of the potential positive outcomes, Dunning, Heath, & Suls (2004) identified four ways in which self-assessments can be flawed. First, people (not just students) can be unrealistically optimistic about their own abilities to complete any task at hand. We tend to think tasks won’t take as long as they eventually do. Second, there is the tendency for us all to believe we are above average. Despite their existence, very few of us are willing to admit to being a below average driver. Third, we all have the tendency to ignore crucial information or performance indicators that are essential. We often downplay or ignore our weaknesses while accentuating our strengths. Finally, many have deficits of information, which goes back to the point about novice learners. These accuracy issues should not be interpreted as reasons not to utilize self-assessment; they are simply reasons why teachers still need to be intimately involved in the process to verify the instructional decisions students are making for themselves.
- Avoid Self-Evaluation. Students need to be heavily invested in self-assessment within the formative assessment paradigm, however, it is the role of the teacher to determine and verify proficiency for the purpose of grading and reporting. The potential inaccuracies explored in the previous point are heightened when there is something at stake, like an overall grade or level. Again, students can be involved in the process, but it is our primary professional responsibility to determine proficiency. It is very alluring to say the kids can grade themselves, and maybe some can, but we cannot relinquish our responsibility nor should we downplay the complexities of accurately assessing proficiency. Put four teachers at a table, hand them a stack of writing samples, and try to get them to agree on the level of proficiency of each sample. We know both challenging and rich conversations that would take place; even veteran teachers professionally trained will disagree on the proper interpretation of the performance criteria, but now we’re going to hand that over to the learner? Having students involved in that process is not problematic, but we must assert our professional judgment when it comes time to determine a level of proficiency that is reported on a report card, transcript, or any other external communication tool where something very real is at stake.
The net result of student self-assessment is positive. Being aware of the potential limitations will only enhance our opportunity to create rich, meaningful experiences where students can recognize – in real time – the discrepancy between where they are and where they need to be. The fundamental message here is that self-assessment works, not enough of us do it, and we need to execute it with finesse and fidelity to maximize the outcomes for all learners.
Brown, G. & Harris, L. (2013). Student Self-Assessment. In J. McMillan (Ed.), Sage Handbook of Research on Classroom Assessment (pp. 367-393). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications Inc.
Dunning, D., Heath, C., & Suls, J.M. (2004). Flawed self-assessment: Implications for health, education, and the workplace. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 5(3), 69-106.
Hattie, J., & Timperley, H. (2007). The Power of Feedback. Review of Educational Research, 77(1), 81–112.
Ramdass, D. & Zimmerman, B.J. (2008). Effects of self-correction strategy training on middle school students’ self-efficacy, self-evaluation, and mathematics division learning. Journal of Advanced Academics, 20(1), 18-41.
Sadler, R. (1989). Formative assessment and the design of instructional systems. Instructional Science, 18, 119-144.
Zimmerman, B.J. (2011). Motivational sources and outcomes of self-regulated learning. In B.J. Zimmerman & D.H. Schunk (Eds.), Handbook of self-regulation of learning and performance (pp. 49-64). New York: Routledge.