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.

Assessment and Emotion

There is something about assessment that provokes strong emotion. You bring up the topic in a room full of teachers and you can feel the energy in the room shift. Similarly, the moment you pull a pile of assessments out of your desk and prepare to return them, students will adjust their posture and conversations halt in readiness for the event. There is something about this unique act of interaction between two parties that makes us really feel something; and make no mistake, the emotion lies in the interaction.

When we engage in assessment of any type, we are engaging in an act that impacts a relationship. Even when we self-assess, the relationship we are impacting in one we hold with ourselves. The act of assessing refers to the continuous intention and act of “capturing” learning in-the-moment and making inferences about the degree of quality that a process or product holds in relation to a goal. The origin of emotion for most people rests in the inference-making because it requires a judgment. Whether we are the party making the judgment or the person receiving it, the interaction elicits emotion because both parties often have a great deal invested in the process.

Depending on the people involved, emotion is lived out in a variety of ways. Here are some common emotional responses to assessment:

Avoidance – Some students and teachers are so uncomfortable with how assessment makes them feel that they avoid engaging in it, whether it be by disengaging from the task or resisting assessment processes in general. This response hijacks potential for both learners and teachers.

Longing – Some learners crave assessment because it validates their self-image and their effort. These are the students who long for assessment results but often dismiss them immediately following the validation. In this case, assessment does not inspire growth.

Defensiveness – Both students and teachers can feel defensive, whether it be about the products learners have produced or the judgments made in relation to those products. It is natural to feel defensive when we are invested in something and the feedback we receive does not align with our intention. It takes purposeful reflection to step back from this emotion and respond to the feedback we receive.

Anger – At the root of all anger is pain, so when we respond to assessment with anger, the root cause is often disappointment or sadness. Students may feel their knowledge or effort has gone unrecognized. Teachers may feel disappointed that their instruction and support has not led to success for learners. Or they may worry their practices are not giving them authentic information. Either way, moving past this emotion requires optimism and resilience.

Pride – Assessment can make people feel really good. When investment is strong and results are successful, it is natural to feel pleased with the assessments we administer or receive. Our work with another person has been affirmed. This is the power of assessment.

As we engage in assessment in our classrooms, it is critical to keep in mind that assessment is strongly connected to emotion and relationship. These factors are what make it so important, both for advancing learning and for supporting the relationships we hold with our learners. With this in mind, here are some ways to maximize the positive emotions and minimize the negative:

  • Talk about assessment before it happens – People are far more capable of feeling in control when they know what is coming. Furthermore, discussing assessment as a support as opposed to a judgment of value can ensure everyone enters the assessment relationship with a positive frame of mind.
  • Shift ownership – Mixing things up and inviting students to self-assess and peer-assess communicates a shared responsibility for learning. It illustrates the importance of assessment as a catalyst for discussion and reflection and lessens the feeling of finality that often adds emotion to the equation.
  • Show compassion – Learning is hard work. It involves mistakes and mis-steps; it demands a return to our efforts multiple times and an acknowledgement of our challenges. This is not easy for anyone, students and teachers alike. It is helpful to spend our days in a climate of compassion and forgiveness. It helps everyone when we can learn to forgive ourselves, empathize with each other and move on.
  • Model vulnerability – It is okay to admit our mistakes. It is important to work through difficulty out loud sometimes. It is essential to change and shift our practices over time. We have to feel comfortable imagining new ways to assess and refine our practice. We have to be willing to share our journeys with our learners. By being vulnerable, we model skills and attitudes that lead to growth and change. We demonstrate our humanity and this brings out the best emotions in everyone.

When we acknowledge that assessment and emotion are connected, we can begin to look for ways to communicate and develop the positive emotions we know are so critical for rich learning and supportive environments. In this way, we can create classrooms filled with teachers and students who feel great about the work they are doing and the relationships they are building.


  1. Veronica Saretsky

    Insightful observations! It is time to shift our assessment culture to one that inspires learning!

  2. Candice Arthur

    I love your comments on emotions because they are so real. Reading the catgories you describe helped me connect educators to certain emotions through my professional experiences with implementing common assessments on a data driven campus. Great article!

  3. Katie White

    Thank you for the feedback Veronica and Candice. I am so glad the post resonated. I think if we can use our emotions and the emotions of our students to indicate when things aren’t quite working (or when they are working really well), we can position ourselves to stay curious, try new things, and invite learners into our quest for respectful and informative assessment practices.


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