Anthony Reibel hails from Adlai E. Stevenson High School in Illinois and is the current assistant principal for teaching and learning. Anthony is also coauthor of several books: Proficiency-Based Assessment, Proficiency-Based Instruction, Proficiency-Based Grading in the Content Areas, and Pathways to Proficiency which explore the relationship between proficiency, pedagogy, and evidence-based grading.

Is it Time to Reassess our Assessments?

Based on Small Changes, Big Impact

Recently, I have witnessed more acts of compassion from teachers than ever before in my career. 

In my own home, I watched my teenager’s face light up as he opened a hand-written letter from his math teacher, merely saying she was proud of him⁠—nothing about math. I watched as my other son’s second-grade teacher changed the lesson for the day, and instead asked the student to write a thank you note to a community helper. My son wrote to the postal carrier, thanking them for continuing to deliver the mail during the pandemic. The mailman sent a letter back.

At my school, I see teachers driving to students’ homes so they can deliver service and academic awards they would have otherwise received this time of year. I saw our administration deliver cookies to its staff to show them they are appreciated. 

Watching events like these unfold over the last few months, I can’t help but think what students need from schools is the same thing we all need to get through a crisis⁠—compassion, empathy, and kindness. What if this was primarily the goal of school? What if schools committed to teaching comradery before content, empathy before equations, and compassion before commas? What if schools didn’t give students scores or marks, but instead rewarded them for acts of sympathy, care, and kindness? What if the primary goal of a lesson was to show students that someone genuinely cares about them and that they matter? Wouldn’t a shift toward this perspective help us all feel a bit more connected?

We are careless if we assume that the majority of our students naturally know how to demonstrate acts of empathy and compassion. In reality, our students may be living in situations where acts of virtue are rare events.

Sincerely, we need to consider prioritizing civility and humanity in our curricula and pedagogy. I would like to suggest several small changes you can make to your assessments that can help your students become more empathetic and compassionate human beings:

Use assessment to assist students in building accurate perceptions of themselves and their abilities

If a student doesn’t know the extent of their abilities, or is not in touch with their emotions, it may be difficult for a student to know how to be compassionate toward others. To learn how to empathize with others, students must first learn how to self-appraise. Self-appraisal is the act of being introspective about the realities of one’s abilities and experiences. (Bandura 2010) and should be the primary goal of assessment. You can promote more self-appraisal on your assessments by changing the format of some of your questions. 

For example:

Instead of Saying:Consider Saying:
“What do you think about your work?”“What do you think I am going to say about your work?”
“What would you do differently now that you know the answer is [X]?”“What if I told you [information]? Would you change your response?”

Research shows (Bandura 2010, et al.) that when a person self-appraises accurately, they tend to show higher self-satisfaction, more efficacious traits, and better self-regulatory skills. These small changes to your questions can produce evidence of how the students think and the decisions they made to solve a problem. You can use this information to provide more accurate feedback to a student so they can build a more accurate self-narrative.

Use assessment to build social connection and emotional awareness

Christopher Embin, author of For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood, and All Y’all Too says that a student’s relationship to their personal emotional space is a significant part of who they are (2016). He goes on to say that until teachers recognize these emotional spaces as valuable to the learning process, students may remain invisible to them—academically and personally.

I couldn’t agree more. Without understanding the non-academic identities (Ketelsen, 2017) of your students, how can you truly know the reason they didn’t perform well on an assessment? Was it because of not knowing the content, or was it because they were having a bad day? To make your students more visible to you, consider using assessment as a conversation tool—to make more explicit the context of a student’s learning. For example:

Instead of Saying:Consider Saying:
“Why was [X] your answer?”“What made you confident that [X] was the answer?”
“What were the steps you used to solve the problem?”“How did you feel when you tried to answer a similar question during class?”

In my experience, when you show a student that you genuinely want to hear what they have to say, a more trusting learning relationship can develop between you and the student.

Let assessment be a moment where students can articulate their thoughts and communicate their needs

Unless we give students the chance to articulate the context of their learning, we are more likely to make assumptions about the student’s learning. Think about mentorship: a mentor does not evaluate performances without input from the mentee. No, instead, they welcome first-person accounts from the mentee. Through these first-person accounts, the mentee can share what they were thinking, feeling, and experiencing during their performance. This information can help a mentor to provide more meaningful guidance and accurate feedback to their mentee. 

You can help students communicate more about themselves on an assessment by making small changes to some of your questions. For example:

Instead of Saying:Consider Saying:
“You got these questions wrong; please work on [specific skill].”“You got these questions wrong; please tell me if there is something about the questions, or your situation that day, that contributed to your incorrect response?”
“This is how you should have solved question [X].”“In solving question [X], how do you feel about starting here?”

When students can provide first-person accounts of their thoughts and emotions on an assessment, you may get more insight into the realities of their abilities. 

To close, let’s remind ourselves of the old saying, “There is never a perfect time to start doing something.” But maybe there is? 

Maybe this pandemic is an opportunity for us to reassess the purpose of our assessments and begin to use them to build sincere and authentic connections with our students? Just a thought. 


Bandura, A. (2010). Self-efficacy. In The Corsini Encyclopedia of Psychology (4th Ed. pp. 1534-1536). Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons.

Emdin, C. (2016). For white folks who teach in the hood . . . and the rest of y’all too: Reality pedagogy and urban education. Boston: Beacon Press.

Ketelsen, T. (2017). “Student Perspectives in Advanced Placement for First-Year and Traditionally Underrepresented Students: Successes, Challenges, and Shifts in Their Academic Identity.” Graduate Theses and Dissertations. 26.

Small Changes, Big Impact is available for purchase on Amazon and

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