Helping Students Thrive by Using Self-Assessment

As a teacher, when you design a lesson or unit, you design it with the hope that everything will go according to plan, your students will learn the content, and they’ll be ready to move on to the next concept. If you’ve been a teacher for more than a day or two, however, you know that this often isn’t the case.

Some students will pick up the information and quickly get bored while others will be lost and quickly fall behind. And sometimes, the lesson will fall flat and none of your students will understand much of anything.

Other times, a lesson will work really well with one group of students, but it will flop with another. This is all just par for the course with teaching, and you never know what you’re going to get on any given day.

Thankfully, there is a way you can make your lessons better, more achievable, and more appropriate for all students. The solution is to teach them how to use self-assessment.

Self-assessment is one of those “teach a man to fish” concepts–once students understand how to self-assess, they’ll be more equipped to learn in all aspects of their life. At the very basic level, self assessment is simple: students need to think:

  1. What was I supposed to learn?
  2. Did I learn it?
  3. What questions do I still have?

This formative assessment helps students and teachers understand where they’re at in their learning. The more students learn to do this at your direction and the more techniques they have to self-assess, the more likely they are to inherently do it on their own.

What does self-assessment look like?

Self-assessment can take many forms, and it can be very quick and informal, or it might be more structured and important. In essence though, self assessment looks like students pausing to examine what they do and don’t know. However, if you simply say, “OK, class, time to self-assess,” you’ll likely be met with blank stares.

The more you’re able to walk students through strategies for self-assessment, the more they’ll understand the purpose, process, and value of thinking about their learning. For the best results to reach the most students, aim to incorporate different types of self-assessment, just as you aim to incorporate different ways of teaching into your lessons.

Why self-assessment works

One of the reasons self-assessment is so effective is because it helps students stay within their zone of proximal development when they’re learning. In this zone, students are being challenged, which means they’re learning, but they’re not being pushed too hard into frustration.

The reason this is so helpful is because teachers can see anywhere from 15-150+ students every day, so it’s hard for a teacher to know where every single student is at in his or her learning. Without stopping for self-assessment, it’s easy for a teacher to move on before students are ready or to belabor a concept students mastered days ago.

When students are able to self-assess, they take control of their learning and realize when they need to ask more questions or spend more time working on a concept. Self-assessment that is relayed back to the teacher, either formally or informally, helps the teacher get a better idea of where students are at with their learning.

Another benefit of self-assessment is that students tend to take more ownership and find more value in their learning, according to a study out of Duquesne University. According to the study, formative assessments like self-assessment “give students the means, motive, and opportunity to take control of their own learning.” When teachers give students those opportunities, they empower their students and help turn them into active, rather than passive learners.

Self-assessment also helps students practice learning independently, which is a key skill for life, and especially for students who are pursuing higher education.

How to execute self assessment

To truly make this part of your classroom, you’ll need to explain to students what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and you’ll need to hold them accountable for their self assessment. The following steps can help you successfully set up self-assessment in your classroom.

Step 1: Explain what self-assessment is and why it’s important

Sometimes teachers have a tendency to surprise students with what’s coming next or to not explain the reasoning behind a teaching strategy or decision. While this is often done out of a desire for control and power as the leader of the classroom, it doesn’t do much to help students and their learning.

If students don’t understand why they’re doing what they’re doing, they usually won’t do it at all, or will just to the bare minimum to go through the motions and get the grade. If students don’t understand the purpose of a learning strategy, they often see it as busy work. Most students are very used to being assessed only by their teachers, so they may not understand why they’re suddenly being asked to take stock of their own learning.

Make sure you take the time to explain why you’re implementing this new learning strategy and how it is going to directly benefit them. That explanation is going to vary based on the age of your students and other factors, but you can give students some variation of the explanation of why self-assessment works above.

Step 2: Always show a model

As you scroll down, you’ll see that we give you some examples of ways to use self assessment; each time you try one of these new techniques, be sure to create an exemplar model for your students. If you want this to work, students need to know what the goal that they’re working toward looks like.

Depending on the type of self-assessment you’re working with, a simple model might be enough, or students might need to practice with the work of others. A low stakes way to start this out is with examples from past students. Pull out an old project from years past and have students assess the project as if it were their own.

Once students learn how to be respectful and constructive with this peer assessment, they can practice with the peers in their class. Including this step often makes it easier for students to assess their own work. It can be hard to look back at your own work or thought process, especially if not much time has passed since you did the work.

Step 3: Teach students different strategies of self-assessment

We all learn best by doing, so rather than just giving students a list of self-assessment strategies, take your time walking through different strategies together. Also remember that the strategy that works best for Jimmy might not work well for Susan, so the more you can diversify self-assessment for your students, the more students you’re going to be able to reach.

Try starting with just one type of self assessment, give students time to master that type, then add another type. As time goes on, you can offer students choice in the type of self-assessment they want to use.

Step 4: Practice

Before you ask students to actively assess their own work, let them practice with some low stakes examples. It’s hard for many people to critique themselves and to recognize they have room for improvement, yet it’s essential.

Give students some examples of work from past students (names always removed) and walk through “self” assessment with those examples together as a class.

Step 5: Create a way to hold students accountable

Self-assessment shouldn’t always be tied to a grade, but students will catch on quickly if you’re not somehow holding them accountable. There are many ways to do this, for example:

  • Conference with each student throughout the process
  • Make self-assessment part of the final grade for a project or unit
  • Create a self-assessment reward chart

The important thing to remember with holding students accountable for their self-assessment is that you should be holding them accountable for doing the self-assessment, but not for what they do or don’t know, nor for the changes they make based on their self-assessment.

Step 6: Don’t stop

Sometimes we have a tendency to try a strategy once or twice and then let it slide as the school year goes on, but as students learn that they’re no longer being held accountable, they will stop. You can’t ever assume a student will keep using a strategy unless you give them explicit instructions and hold them accountable.

Remember that as with anything, students will get better at self-assessment the more they practice it. The more you explicitly assign self-assessment, the more it will become a normal part of the learning process.

Examples of self assessment

Remember that it’s good to use a variety of self-assessment strategies so all students have a chance to find a style that works best for them. Any time you introduce a new strategy or assign self-assessment, be very clear about what students should do and how they should do it.

The strategies we suggest are broken down by age, but always use your best judgment regarding which strategies will be best for your students.

Grades K-3

KWL chart: Before starting a lesson or unit, have students write or say what they already know (K) and what they want to know (W) about the topic. After the lesson or unit, they write or say what they learned (L). This can easily evolve into larger discussions and assignments.

Goals: At the end of each lesson, day, week, etc. students write one learning goal they would like to achieve. This can be very open-ended, or it could be very focused, asking students to reflect on one specific subject or topic. You can expand on this by having students return to their goal to see if they met it, encouraging them to ask for help if they haven’t met their goal.

Red, yellow, green: Give each student three circles: one red, one yellow, and one green. Throughout the school day, students place their red circle on their desk if they’re lost or confused, yellow if they’re struggling a little bit, and green if they understand, and they’re good to go. You can also stop to have students check their understanding by asking them to hold up a color. Some students feel shy about admitting they’re confused, so this strategy can also work really well if you have students place their heads down before holding up their circle.

Grades 4-5

Objective check: In the morning, give students a list of objectives you will cover in school today. Have each student write down an objective they would really like to learn today. At the end of the day, students return to the objective and determine whether they learned it or not.

Tricky spots: Work with students to identify where they struggle (for example, “I have trouble with word problems in math,” or “I have trouble spelling new words”). When starting a new lesson or unit, have each student identify one tricky spot they want to focus on. Be sure to check in with students often on their tricky spot to make sure they are making progress and not getting frustrated.

Highlighting: Have students go back to a writing assignment, worksheet, or project and highlight the section that they think was their best work. As an extension, have them explain why this was their best work. This is an excellent strategy to use with students who struggle or lack confidence in their work.

Grades 6-8

Self reflection: After a speech or presentation, have students write down three things they did well and one thing they can improve on. Extend this by returning to these during the next speech or presentation; you could even make them part of the rubric for the next assignment.

Exit tickets: Before students can leave the room, they must fill out an exit ticket and hand it to the teacher. You might ask them to write one thing they learned today and one thing they want to learn tomorrow, for example.

Think, pair, share: Pose a reflective question or prompt to students, for example you might tell them to think about or even write down the most important thing they learned in class today. Next, have them pair with a partner or small group to discuss their answer to the question or prompt, and finally, have students report back to the whole class.

Grades 9-12

Rubrics: Before completing a project, give students the rubric you will use to grade their effort. Have students complete a draft of the project and assess themselves using the rubric. After they do this, you might conference with them, give them feedback, or have them complete a reflective assignment. Then, have students complete a second draft that they will turn in for their grade (or to continue to work and improve upon).

Writing conferences: After students write an outline or first draft of an essay, hold an individual conference with each student. Before you provide your input, have students identify the strengths and weaknesses of their work. Use their self assessment as the guide of what you discuss during the conference. You might even find that students are more critical of themselves than you would have been.

Empty rubrics: At the beginning of a project, leave a space on the rubric empty. Help each student fill in the empty spot with something they need to work on, whether it’s something that they’re already good at and want to get even better or it’s something they struggle with and want to get better at.

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