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.

Developing the Sub-Habits of Self-Assessment

The ultimate goal is assessment as learning, where assessment occurs in real time and is the process by which people reflect on their own thinking and diagnose how they’ve changed.
Sir Ken Robinson (2015)

In a previous blog post, I shared conditions that support an environment of habitual and authentic student self-assessment. This post will focus on “digging deeper” into why students may find self-assessment a challenging enterprise and how to develop the sub-habits that support this essential skill.

“By making students aware that they can ‘think about their thinking,’ you will also help them to improve those cognitive behaviors that result in better classroom performance.” (Kratochwill and Travers, 1996, p.270)

Metacognition is a complex process. When students are asked to reflect on reasons for making a decision or to design steps to improve an outcome, they can find this task challenging, even when the classroom environment supports risk-taking and the criteria for proficiency have been shared. Sometimes, despite our best efforts, students can still find self-assessment difficult. At times like this, it may be necessary to consider the sub-habits for successful self-assessment. When a student is struggling, consider whether these specific sub-habits need to be developed:

  • Noticing/remembering/describing—Before students can reflect on their learning, they have to notice their thinking. This is no small feat. We may have to teach noticing strategies such as marking a text while reading, or stopping frequently during a task to describe what just happened. It may also be helpful to video record learning as it unfolds in order to develop awareness of choices made. This invites discussions about how learning may shift from this point forward. Helping students to notice means developing their ability to remember and describe events from the near or distant past. Asking questions like, “Do you remember last time you tried that…?” or “Do you remember what your partner was doing during that activity…?” can help students recall and describe important details critical to future decision-making.
  • Relating/comparing/analyzing/connecting—The ability to relate, compare, connect or analyze concepts or skills can happen once students can notice and describe their learning. This supports the ability to compare processes and products to specific criteria for proficiency. Helping students develop these skills in more-than-literal ways and in multiple contexts takes practice. Often students have difficulty with implied or inferential understanding and yet this kind of understanding is part of strong self-assessment. To practice, we can ask questions like, “What does this remind you of?” or “How does this compare to that?”
  • Predicting/visualizing/imagining—Can learners predict how learning outcomes may be affected when they change the strategies they use while practicing? Can they imagine possibilities in advance of them actually occurring? Devoting time to predicting outcomes of decisions, experiments, games, and conversations helps students develop this skill. In order to set goals and design action plans, students have to be able to imagine and visualize new ways of doing things. Relating these skills to real-life experiences is one way to acknowledge them as part of a student’s daily life. Allowing students time to visualize, imagine, and predict in a variety of contexts and disciplines will help them design strong action plans.
  • Empathizing/forgiving—The ability to self-assess and set goals is intimately linked to the feelings generated when faced with a gap between where we are and where we want to go. Empathizing and forgiving both ourselves and others is part of being able to move forward, grow, and learn. If we cannot forgive ourselves for failure and relate our current challenges to past challenges we have overcome, we cannot take risks or make changes. These skills develop resilience and a belief in our own ability to improve, while accepting ourselves as we are. We can support growth in this area through honest discussions about owning our actions and decisions, facing difficulty, and exploring examples of others who have overcome challenges. We can also model our own challenges through think-aloud strategies. Dueck (2014) explains, “The most important relationship is the one that a student has with him-or herself as a learner.” (p. 166) Prior experiences, both in and outside of school, can make this skill difficult to develop but it is essential for strong self-assessment.
  • Decision-making/self-regulating—Some students have a hard time making decisions because making a decision ultimately involves taking a risk. Students may also be unclear about criteria for successful processes and/or products. They can’t make a decision because they aren’t sure where they are going or how they should be getting there. Helping students take risks, make their own decisions, and be responsible for the outcomes are skills worth developing. Being responsible for our own needs and self-regulating to meet those needs is essential, not just for self-assessment, but for life.
  • Organizing/revising/revisiting—Does the learner know how to revise their work? Do they know how to take an idea and look at it in a new way? Do they need help organizing their thoughts and ideas or sequencing the steps they should take to make things clearer, stronger, or more proficient? Often we take these skills for granted. We assume because we have engaged in these processes, students have internalized them and made them habits. However, students may need specific instruction and modelling for revisiting a product and revising it effectively.

Developing learners who can self-assess and set goals for growth, means exploring the reasons for the challenges we are observing. Sometimes, uncovering the reasons for difficulty means doing the very things we are developing in the learners in our classrooms: We must notice the challenges, describe them, and analyze the reasons for their occurrence. We can then predict possible outcomes when we change our instruction, and forgive ourselves for missing the mark.


Dueck, M. (2014). Grading smarter not harder: Assessment strategies that motivate kids and help them learn. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Kratochwill, E. and Travers, L. (1996). Educational psychology: Effective teaching, effective learning, (2nd ed.). Dubuque, IA: Times Mirror Higher Education Group, Inc.

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


  1. Veronica Saretsky

    I think Katie has hit the nail on the head when it comes to student self assessment (peer assessment as well). We need to teach our students how to self assess with accuracy. It is an important life skill and it doesn’t just come naturally. I have had success using the video camera in performance based projects as a tool for AFL and the PE department at MidSun School also has found video to be an effective tool to break down performance based skills with students. They are able to see themselves and self assess more accurately.

    • Katie White

      So, true. The trick is to leverage the sub-habits that already exist in other aspects of our learners’ lives and use them to explicitly connect to the more specific skill of academic self-assessment. Capturing learning through documentation (video, photos, etc.) invites a really rich discussion about HOW we learn, WHY we make the decisions we do “in the moment” and HOW to adjust our choices to get the results we want. Thanks for replying!


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