Self Assessment is the most overlooked, yet possibly most valuable aspect of assessment for students at all levels and in all fields. With these two articles, apply the insights to your own learning and that of other adult professionals.
Incorporating a standards-based approach to teaching and learning can be a creative and enriching endeavor. What's one key approach? Ask students to assess their own work.
Five teachers in a suburban high school recently implemented student self-assessment (SSA) activities in their classes. The results of this experiment—in courses as different as physics and foreign language—revealed the potential of SSA to make standards come alive for students. The reactions of students and teachers in this project also indicated that student self-assessment practices offer solutions to some of the concerns about standards that have been expressed by both supporters and opponents of this approach to school reform.
Student Self-Assessment in Practice
In general, SSA refers to training students to evaluate their own work for the purpose of improving it (Rolheiser & Ross, 2000). To become capable evaluators of their work, students must have a clear target the opportunity to help create a definition of quality work feedback the opportunity to correct or self-adjust their work before they turn it in SSA also includes reflective activities in which students are prompted to consider the strengths and weaknesses of their work, make plans for improvement, or integrate the assignment with previous learning (Paris & Ayres, 1994; Stiggins, 1997; Wiggins, 1998).
The standards-based education movement has grown out of the recognition that clear goals for learning are required to ensure quality education for all students (Marzano, Pickering, & McTighe, 1993). Neither teachers nor students can succeed without a clear vision of what students must know and be able to do, or without the ability to translate that vision into actions that result in high quality work (Stiggins, 1997). The district in which our experiment took place has well-defined academic standards. In planning their self-assessment activities, the teachers made sure they had a clear target in mind for students by selecting a standard or a learning goal as a focus for the activity.
Involving Students in Defining the Criteria
To meet standards, students must understand the meaning of standards and be able to translate them into guidelines they can use. The process of leading students to express a standard in their own words in terms of observable criteria can produce goals for student work that are specific, understandable, and appropriately challenging (Rolheiser & Ross, 2000). When interviewed after the experiment with SSA, students clearly indicated that they liked being involved in designing the criteria. "Well, now I know what I need to work on," one student remarked.
Teachers can also invite students to contribute to the choice of assessment tasks, the rubric that describes levels of proficiency, or the scoring procedure. Allowing students to work cooperatively with teachers in these areas appears to help students internalize the standard and feel more ownership of the assessment (Cole, Coffey, & Goldman, 1999; Ross, Rolheiser, & Hogaboam-Gray, 2000; Stiggins, 1997). Most students in our classes participated freely in the discussion to define the criteria and gave the following reasons for their involvement: "Well, I think if some students were to do it, they would make it really easy, but then if some teachers were to do it, they would make it really hard. So I just like doing it and making it where I, as an average student, was able to reach it."
As illustrated in this student's comment, negotiation is a necessary part of the process of co-designing criteria. Rolheiser and Ross, major contributors to the study of student self-assessment, describe this negotiation as "neither imposing school goals nor acquiescing to student preferences" (2000, p. 33). Resolving differences of opinion between students turned out to be a more significant factor in our experiment. Physics students, in particular, engaged in a lively discussion before arriving at consensus for the definition of a high-quality lab report. Almost all of the students interviewed later about that discussion thought it had been helpful. As one boy observed, "I think that by getting different ideas and different opinions on it as a class, you got a good understanding of what the standards should be." Another added, "I think all of us learned a lot from that, just because we had to work together and we all had to agree on it. And we had to piece it all together for ourselves instead of the teacher always doing it, and I think you learn a lot more by doing things yourself, than from just having the teacher do it for you."
The next steps in SSA include asking students to apply the criteria to their work and get feedback about their success. Feedback has been defined as "describ[ing] what you did and did not do in terms of your goal" (Wiggins, 1997, p. 8). Feedback that is informational and useful in nature has been considered to be both critical to learning and highly motivating (Jensen, 1998; Wiggins, 1997).
Effective feedback can come from many sources, not just from comments spoken or written by the teacher. Two teachers in our experiment enlisted students to evaluate the work of their peers. Although some students expressed discomfort with that task, most indicated that having a previously defined list of criteria made the process easy and fair. All but one of the students interviewed described ways in which peer-evaluating helped them to improve the quality of their own work. They reported recognizing their own mistakes when they saw similar errors in a peer's work, for example. Students also said they benefitted from seeing another student's approach to an assignment. This activity seemed to give students one more way of interacting with standards at a meaningful level.
Opportunities for Self-Correcting
Feedback from any source, however, is futile if it does not lead to opportunities for students to self-correct. Self-correction, the fourth step in the process of SSA, is the true goal of student self-assessment (Wiggins, 1997). The constructivist concept of learning as a "work in progress" acknowledges that excellence in almost any endeavor requires the iterative processes of refinement and improvement (Darling-Hammond, Ancess, & Falk, 1995; Frederiksen & Collins, 1989; Glasser, 1998). Teachers who encourage students to learn from their mistakes show faith in students' capabilities and promote students' personal control in the learning context. This approach increases the likelihood that students will achieve competence in the subject matter (Valencia, 1990; Wlodkowski, 1999). In these ways, opportunities for self-correcting provide a necessary and effective step in students' eventual accomplishment of standards.
In analyzing our experiment, the teachers concluded that they should have promoted selfcorrection more directly than they did. Although they implemented most of the other elements of SSA, they tended to leave self-correcting up to the students to do on their own. The good news was that many students reported that they had made adjustments to their work—sometimes as a result of the feedback, but also because they had a rubric to consult. One student reported having become "more of a perfectionist," and another said that she "double-checked the rubric two or three times" because she knew "exactly how I could make my paper good."
Students liked being able to make the choice about their level of performance and associated this choice with having a rubric they understood. As one student put it, "She's actually my favorite teacher, just because she ... leads you to know how you have to do it, but she leaves it open, so you can decide whether [or not] you want to." Another student believed that her efforts to improve her work with the aid of the rubric made it easier to ask for the kind of help she needed from the teacher. She attributed her improved performance in the class to this personalized help.
Students learned how to improve their work when they participated in reflective activities, the remaining element of SSA. Reflective thinking has historically been promoted as a central part of learning (Bruner, 1986; Dewey, 1933). Reflective activities employed by teachers in our experiment were of two types: post-performance reflections and goal-setting activities. In the first type, students were asked to think about a completed performance or product, to evaluate its strengths and weaknesses, and to describe their in-process experiences. In the goal-setting activities, students were guided to evaluate their needs and make specific plans for reaching certain goals, such as preparing for the final exam.
In the analysis of our experiment, the benefits of both types of reflective activities became apparent. Students believed they were more aware of their particular learning needs and preferences as a result of the reflective activities; teachers confirmed this change. "The most noticeable effect was the sense of students becoming more self-aware," said one teacher. Additionally, teachers reported that they understood their students better after reading their reflections on completed work. "I found it helpful to hear about the difficulties the students had while doing the assignment. It helped in my assessment." Students liked it because "I could ... let the teacher know what I put the most effort into," and also, "if there were problems, you could tell her ... so she could understand and take it into reference." Teachers took these messages from students into consideration and described the adjustments they made as a result. Students also reported positive feelings about the goal-setting activities designed by their teachers. Their strong approval was most often linked to the opportunity to choose their own goals.
Both types of reflective activities used in our experiment enhanced students' experience of choice and personal distinctiveness. Getting to make choices and have input were also frequently mentioned reasons for students' overall positive reaction to their teachers' experimentation with student self-assessment. This aspect of the SSA practices is a significant one in light of commonly expressed criticisms of the standards movement.
Concerns about Standards
Two concerns about the standards movement are commonly expressed by the opponents and the supporters of this approach to school reform. Interestingly, the concerns of the two groups are very similar at base. Student self-assessment, as we experienced it in a simple implementation, seems to provide solutions to these issues.
The most basic concern about the outlining of standards for student performance by states and districts is that it results in a narrowing of the curriculum (Glickman, 2001). Some educators fear that teaching to the standards and the use of highly specific rubrics will limit learning and distract from a focus on the overall quality of the performance/outcome (Mabry, 1999). A variation on this concern is the fear that the wholesale adoption of standards will result in the curtailment of meaningful, diverse, and individually relevant learning (Glickman, 2001). Truly high-quality education should increase the personalization of learning, producing greater variance in student performance, rather than a stultifying sameness (Eisner, 2001).
Personally meaningful, authentic, and high-quality learning, however, also figures among the primary concerns of supporters of standards for the classroom (Thompson, 2001). These educators envision teachers in a coaching role and students as skilled performers for whom the goals and processes of learning have been illuminated through authentic, performance-oriented criteria (Darling-Hammond et al., 1995). They promote critical, autonomous thinking with the goal of fostering actively engaged, self-regulated learners, not automatons (Stiggins, 1997; Wiggins, 1993).
The real point of division over standards seems to involve their over-simplification for use with high-stakes testing, which has been called "the evil twin" of authentic standards-based reform (Thompson, 2001). Rubrics designed to facilitate scoring rather than learning (Mabry, 1999) and standards focused on accountability rather than clarity of goals (Glickman, 2001) raise a red flag for supporters and opponents of standards-based reform alike.
The second major concern about standards also relates to their role in high-stakes testing. To the extent to which selected standards become the accepted measures of success and thereby the financial support of schools, they assume an unassailable status. Opponents fear that diversity will be threatened and debate squelched. Democracy in education will diminish as one group decides what everyone should master (Glickman, 2001). This specter has elicited a call to resistance in various forms (Ohanian, 2001). One of the more reasonable reactions suggested was that teachers accept the state standards and tests and "make them work by involving students in finding ways to learn and prepare for them" (Glickman, 2001, p. 50).
The Potential Contribution of Student Self-Assessment
Student self-assessment, based on our experience with it, provides one such way to prepare students. The practices of SSA address many of the concerns related to standards. Involving students in defining criteria tended to widen and diversify the standards of quality, rather than narrow them, for example. Students went beyond what teachers envisioned, and through a process in which many voices were heard, created personally meaningful criteria. In most cases these criteria allowed for reliable prediction of success and fair scoring for diverse projects. Feedback and post-performance reflection focused evaluation on the whole product, not just isolated qualities. Reflective activities also promoted personalization of the learning, as students analyzed their individual needs and integrated the learning of this assignment with their other experiences. Students enjoyed a more democratic input into their learning context. Both students and teachers reported improved performance.
In summary, student self-assessment practices helped teachers to incorporate standards into the classroom and to offset their potentially negative aspects. As an earlier Educational Leadership article on standards stated, "What we need are new models that promote individual creativity within a standardized structure, rather than conformity to countless standards" (Strong, Silver, & Perini, 1999). Student self-assessment, judging by our experience with it, is such a model.
Linda B. Bruce is an education consultant at Kardía, Education Division, KLB Consulting Group in Littleton, CO. She specializes in coaching teachers to adapt learning-centered principles to their classroom needs and goals. Bruce can be reached at email@example.com.
This is an expanded version of an article that appeared in the September 2001 issue of Classroom Leadership.
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I just wanted you to know that . . . I have proof that I have met the writing standard that says I have to use evidence to support my opinions. Great news, huh? The bad news is that I still need to work on being organized and getting my work done on time. This, I'm sure, is of no surprise to you, because you know only too well that I take my own sweet time in getting things done!
After our integrated English/American government course ended, we asked Anna and her fellow junior classmates to reflect upon their learning experiences and growth over the previous semester. Anna's choice of her mother as her audience told us as much about her success in our class as did the results on her written assessments for the course. The often bitter and continuous battles between Anna and her mother had proven to be a roadblock to her academic success and had culminated in Anna moving out of the house. Anna's desire to share both her successes and shortcomings with her worst critic, therefore, paralleled the improved performance that we had witnessed in her classwork.
Student reflection is a tool that we use regularly to validate the levels of our students' learning and to help them become more responsible for their own educational growth. In addition, our students' reflections provide us with a client voice to use in conjunction with our professional reflections on classroom practices.
The guiding principle of data-driven instruction is the notion of using quality information to provide useful feedback for improving learning. Too often students are left out of this effective educational process. They are tested and assessed, graded and rated, judged and prejudged without being asked to help interpret results.
Just as we feel it is essential for teachers to reflect and share the successes and failures of their practice with colleagues, it is equally important for teachers and students to have a dialogue that creates the spirit of a learning partnership.
We use reflection for both our students and ourselves at different classroom junctures to analyze results and to plan for the future in three interrelated ways:
To build a better body of evidence.
To build better learners.
To build better classrooms.
Building a Better Body of Evidence–Making Sure the Results are Right
One way we use student reflection is to check the validity of the results we compile through our assessment methods. In a performance-based class like ours, results sometimes can be masked by the type of performance we use for assessment. For instance, Jason, who is bright and attentive in class, struggled with writing; therefore, it came as no surprise that his vague essay about the American justice system supplied little support or development of ideas and indicated that he was below standard on his understanding of the concepts. However, when asked verbal reflection questions such as, "What do you know about the justice system that you did not discuss in your writing?" and "Tell us about some specific successes and failures of our justice system," Jason gave us a more complete picture of what he actually knew and could apply from his study. Because Jason's responses were articulate and rich in detail, his score on the content portion of the assessment was changed to match the understanding he demonstrated through oral reflection.
Not only does reflection provide us with additional evidence about our students, but it can sometimes be the best method of getting authentic results. A mock congress, for example, offers a highly interactive and often very personal learning experience that is difficult, if not impossible, to assess with conventional methods. Our mock congress includes a culminating reflective activity that asks students to write to their "constituents" to explain their role in congress, cite their reasons for voting the way they did, and outline their plans for running again. In their letters, students must also describe the benefits and pitfalls of representative government. In this case, we construct our reflection prompts so that students supply supporting evidence of their learning within the assessment/ learning opportunity.
Sometimes the reflection gives us clues into other aspects of students' lives that may affect their school performance. While this evidence does not excuse a student from meeting a standard, it helps us provide accommodations for the student's learning. We first learned of Anna's trouble with her mother and her eventual move from the house during a reflection. With that added information, we were able to try to minimize the affect of Anna's home life on her performance and focus on her attainment of the standard.
Building Better Learners–Making Results Speak to Students
Students are often harsh self-critics. We use reflection to transform this criticism into effective plans for improvement. Perhaps more important, students examine their successes so that they can build better understandings of themselves as learners.
Writing is a good way for students to analyze their skills and growth. We ask students on an on-going basis to comment on their development as writers. Before students took a district-level persuasive writing test, for example, we asked them to write a position paper about foreign affairs. Teachers and students examined the essays following a district rubric. Students then identified areas to improve their writing when participating in the district assessment. When we received the district test results, we saw more students scored at higher levels.
Reflection helps sort and cement in students' minds reasons for both their successes and their shortcomings. For example, Alex, who is quiet and reserved, emerged as an insightful thinker during a Socratic seminar about a piece of literature. This earned him kudos from surprised students and teachers. Afterward, when asked to identify specific reasons for successes or difficulties, Alex commented in his reflection that he decided to take a chance by offering a fresh interpretation of a story not yet explored by the group. The impact on Alex from both recognizing the success of this strategy and giving voice to its power was long-lasting. From that day forward, Alex was at the top of the class, consistently performing at a high level on a broad range of assessments.
We all know that students listen to each other more than teachers. Classroom-based student-to-student reflection can be used to take advantage of this. At the end of our course we ask our students to write letters to next year's students, describing how to be successful in class. At the beginning of the next year we pull out these reflective letters as part of our introduction and goal-setting. The comments on the letters range from the importance of organization to how to read a rubric to bringing food for the teachers. We compile the results and ask students to use this information while planning how to meet their goals for the class. As a twist on this idea, we ask students midway through the course to write letters examining their overall goals and setting plans for better performances next term.
Reflective opportunities also help students learn by giving them a chance to release frustrations. "I hated this unit" or "It was unfair," are frequent refrains at the end of our Socratic seminar and political cartoon units. These units require students to express learning in ways that may be unfamiliar and challenging to them. By giving them the chance to vent, we open the communication channels so we can more closely examine ways of improving their performances.
Building Better Classrooms–Making Results the Basis for Student/Teacher Conversations
The use of reflective teaching practices has been well documented. Including students in this professional practice of self-analysis and personal dialogue adds the client's voice to this process. Student reflection helps us determine how clearly the purpose and direction of the learning were communicated. It also models the reflective process for students: they are more likely to engage in quality reflection if they see their teacher doing so, and if they witness changes in the classroom as a result of what has been suggested.
Quality reflection takes practice and time. Students cannot be expected to produce meaningful reflection without understanding its goals and methods. Early in the course, we share samples of quality reflection, pointing out such key components as providing examples that serve as evidence and writing clear explanations with an audience in mind. We also devote class time for students to work on their reflections with teacher assistance. Finally, our task is to highlight the improved academic performance that results from quality reflection practices.
Student responses also confirm effective teaching techniques. For example, when we started using graphic organizers more extensively in our classroom, we noticed students paid more attention, asked questions, and initiated the checking-for-understanding process. We suspected the graphic organizers were the cause, and this was confirmed by student responses in a class discussion.
Sometimes we use anonymous reflection. For example, when our results are less than what we expect and we require honest criticism of our teaching techniques. Some students are reluctant to share criticism of their teachers unless they understand retribution is highly unlikely.
We then take the most pertinent comments from students and share them with the class along with our plans for improvement. Students see their comments honored, and as a result they are even more engaged in the evaluation process.
Quality reflective practices and processes lead us toward our goal of making students more responsible for their own learning based on valid results in a setting where everyone is engaged in a reflective learning process.
Dorotha Ekx is an English teacher at Longmont High School in Longmont, Colorado. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kent Willmann is a Social Studies teacher, also at Longmont High School. His e-mail address is email@example.com.