Self Assessment: Empowering students in their own learning

by Edward Wilson, @ewilsonedu

* originally posed on, 27 Oct 2018 *


“Sir, you finished grading our Spin Assignments Yesterday?” This is one of my students, right after I submitted some comments about her work in our online grade book.

“Yes, I did,” I reply, rather stoically, knowing what was coming next.

“Why didn’t you give it a mark?” She asks, a hint of doubt creeping in there.

“Did you read the comment?” I shoot back.

“Yes. But… I want to know what you think,” she asks sheepishly.

Now, I don’t blame my students for conversations like this because, I’ll admit, I’m putting them in a relatively unknown situation. It’s because of the comfortable footing they’ve been on for the past eleven or twelve years has suddenly been yanked from beneath their feet. I’ll give them a grade because I have to, but this year I’m working very hard to make our conferences and feedback more impactful; such that the number might seem more like an afterthought. Instead, I stress our discussions, their progress, their recent success – and I try to avoid talking about numbers in every case. The unfamiliar is always uncomfortable and awkward at first.

Who can blame them? Although we tout strong education theories like “inquiry-based learning” or having a “student-centered curriculum,” the reality is that students slowly lose their agency or any sense of control over their learning as they move through the ranks. Most English classes are a perfect example of this: the higher the grade level, the less likely it is that the students get to choose the material covered. In primary school, they participate in collaborative literature circles and they choose their own texts based on their interests; but in secondary levels, content is king and we all panic while trying to cover whatever it is that we “need” to cover. And our retorts usually sound something like this: “Well, we’d be doing them a disservice if we weren’t preparing them for University/society/work/etc.”

Thus, our students are doing exactly what we (and our culture) have trained them to do: they have successfully learned to play the game of school–a game that revolves around getting exemplary marks. Primary school is a world of wonder and excitement, where students explore and learn at their own pace. But by the time they reach secondary, they are taught to march at a very different rate – success is based on giving the teacher exactly what they want.

Students ask me about the marking criteria. They want to see student samples. They barrage me with questions about the quality of their work – and it all boils down to a basic formula: “Tell me what you want so I can give it to you with the least amount of fuss.”

Two years ago, after a wonderful professional development session with a middle years program workshop leader named Terry Linton, I started redesigning my rubrics with more student self-assessment in mind. Terry’s goal was to get his students assessing themselves by the end of each year. Instead of just spewing out a number like a machine, I wanted students to self-assess their work before I looked at the finished product. The results were interesting but greatly varied and a lot of the learning process had to do with creating well-designed rubrics. However, I also learned that the majority of my students rarely ever take the time to read or even consider the criteria by which they are being assessed. They just hand it in and BAM! – they get a number in return. Because that’s the way the system is designed: they just keep throwing stuff at us until they figure out what sticks. But when you sit with them and legitimately ask them why they have given themselves a particular score based on a specific criterion, prepare yourself for a multitude of responses.


The next piece of the puzzle came from Carla Meyrnik’s post concerning her exhaustion and the eventual decision to stop marking her work at home – instead, she would peruse their work, and then evaluate it with the student the very next day. This is very similar to what Joy Kirr described as conferencing and deciding on a sufficient “grade” with the student. Now, we were getting somewhere. In most self-assessments, students choose the middle range or the “safe grades” because they are worried about giving themselves too much or too little credit and they don’t want to get crushed. But going over their work with them, and getting them to identify areas of strength and areas for work is hugely beneficial for both the student and the teacher involved. The real results started pouring in towards the end of the year when the students were becoming more and more discerning about their progress and where they wanted to put in more effort.

This year, after reading George Couros’ book The Innovator’s Mindset, I decided to tackle the use of online portfolios to increase student agency even more. The use of portfolios is unlikely to be earth-shattering for most educators, but the real goal here was to create more of workshop model for my classroom based on what Scott Hazeau described in his post from last year. Moreover, our English department spent considerable amounts of time discussing the implications of Lucy Caulkins’ reading and writing workshop model and how that could be applied within a secondary setting. What I’m realizing more and more is that in order to make all this work, teachers cannot be tied to delivering content as their primary function. Instead, more self-directed learning tools, like online portfolios, allow our students to move through the content at their own pace – thereby freeing us up for more conferencing and more self-assessment opportunities.

Another tool for increased student self-assessment is having the students choose a specific target. For this, I tend to use the larger overarching learning outcomes (sometimes called “objectives” depending on where the curriculum is written) as their “targets.” And I literally have them choose one of the learning outcomes from the course as their goal for that particular assessment: for a middle school level it would be something like “the student justifies their opinions and ideas, using examples, explanations, and terminology.” This is a nice and simple target and it changes the focus of the task from the larger more detailed rubric, to just one aspect of the course. Plus, when the student stamps this goal on their work – it opens up a whole new conversation when we conference at the end, where I can ask questions like “how do you think it went? Did you use a variety of examples and include key terminology?” Again, trying to steer the conversation away from the final mark and towards more reflective practice.

Students are often flustered and confused when I turn the tables on them, slowly but surely, putting more of the responsibility for the quality of their work on their shoulders. Don’t kid yourself – the pushback is real. Certain students feel downright angry that I’m not “doing my job,” as a massive calculator should. They give me their work and my job is to spit out a number that somehow validates their expectations. Student self-assessment is a long and windy road that looks very different in each classroom based on the organizational intentions of the teacher. Instead, the value of these changes lies not in shifting the responsibility of assessment towards the students, but in highlighting the intrinsic value of the learning process.

And that’s where the discussion of self-assessment comes back to the needs of the students: Do the students need their experiences reduced to numerical and quantifiable marks that satisfy the status quo? Or do the students need to be more discerning of the larger expectations, their own process, and their capabilities? If so, then our goals should be more about weaning our students off their dependency towards our function as the end-all and be-all when it comes to evaluating the quality of their work.

Today, thanks to more self-assessment practices, my conferences sound more like this: “So how did it go? Are you happy with how your piece turned out?”

“It took me a while to choose my topic, but I’m super happy with the ending,” she’s being modest. As is expected.

“Oh yeah? What’s your favourite line?” I already know the last paragraph is great, but I want her to discuss her overall process.

“I love how I opened the last paragraph and the call to action, where I start with the 3rd person plural. I think that’s where I really pulled it all together.” Now she’s rolling. Now she’s ready to really talk.

“Excellent – let’s take a look, shall we?”

The Martyr

I am an English teacher.

I would surmise that most, if not all, English teachers all suffer from a debilitating disease known as the “martyr” syndrome. At any point throughout the year, housed within our fashionable Oxford leather tote bags, we lug around stacks and stacks of essays or papers or writing tasks that absolutely must be marked. We mark in the evenings. We mark on the weekends. I even used to bring my marking to the mechanic, and I would mark while waiting for my car.

And we all get it. We all get that marking is “part of the job” and we can clearly see the tangible results when we design a good assessment with timely feedback. But what are we really creating in the long run? We are creating a population of students that buy into the idea of societal meritocracy: we tell you what to do and how to do it, and then we somehow measure how well you did it. Strangely, though, we are also continually surprised when they are disengaged or simply waiting for their teacher to tell them what they “should” be thinking. We’re not creating free-thinkers who question and explore; we’re creating minions who have learned to comply, because that’s how the system works.

Better yet – we boil a student’s entire year of progress and learning own into a single number or a letter grade. Perfect. Education in a nutshell.

Today, however, we sit precariously on the cusp of greatness. What I can only describe as a technological revolution is putting an immense amount of pressure on the age-old traditions of the educational landscape. Industry norms are changing at lightning fast speed, to the point where even the concept of “work,” “job” and “career” are totally different than they were five years ago. Don’t get me wrong, technology has its limits and this new reality we are creating is relatively unknown – but that doesn’t change the nature of our function as educators: which is to get students from point A to point B.

A wiser man than me once said: “if you don’t look back at yourself a year or two ago and think ‘jeez, I can’t believe I used to think that way,’ then you’re not learning or improving.” And this holds true to our teaching practices as well. What our students need and how they interact with the readings we assign, the project based assignments we give them, or even how they interpret their reports is not longer the same as it was a year ago. Too often we get stuck in what George Couros calls That’s The Way We’ve Always Done It [or TTWWADI for short] because that’s how we are wired – it’s the simplicity of the routine that calls to us on a primal level. Even I’ve said similar words to myself, late at night like a silent prayer to great Gods of the almighty curriculum. Marking papers and writing reports is no different – they give us the comfort of measurement – because if it can measured and counted, then clearly we have control over the situation.

So what happens when we question the establishment? What happens when we step out of our comfort zone(s) and into the harsh light of something new and unforeseen? That which is uncertain scares us the most, not so much because