I’ve been refining my thinking about self-assessment with help from a colleague and some reading. Much of what I’ve been considering applies to teacher self-assessment as well. Self-assessment is another of those loosely used terms that refers to different activities. It’s regularly equated with self-reflection, and it references assessments an individual makes of a performance or product. Self-reflection tends to be larger, more global in focus—say, a set of beliefs that form a teacher’s identity, a teacher’s understanding of how she functions in groups, or whether a teacher believes he’s good at facilitating discussion. Individual assessments are specific and focused externally—those occasions when students might self-grade solutions to a problem set or critique a self-authored story.
Students, teachers, and everyone else make judgements about how they’re doing all the time. A student makes a comment in a group and quickly considers how others respond. “Were they listening?” “Did anyone agree?” “Did someone else make the same comment?” “How did the group respond then?” A teacher asks a question and there’s no response. Thoughts tumble: “The question must be too hard,” “As usual, lots of them are unprepared,” “Maybe the question wasn’t clear,” “How much longer should I wait,” “I could just give a good answer and move on.” People make these assessments quickly and without questioning their accuracy.
Perhaps that’s because it’s hard to do self-assessment accurately. Objectivity evades those intimately involved with the subject. We want to think the best of ourselves. Inaccurate self-assessments persist if feedback never challenges what’s believed. When feedback disconfirms a belief, there can be strong motivation to resist it. A student thinks he did pretty well on the exam—good chances for a solid B. Instead he earns a C-. That’s what the teacher “gave” him, he tells others. Besides the questions he missed were tricky, and everybody knows the teacher is a tough grader.
Self-assessment activities and assignments have value because they help to overcome these mostly automatic, emotional, and often self-aggrandizing evaluations. A self-assessment assignment slows down the process and focuses it. For example, the teacher gives students a collection of pointed prompts that guide the student’s exploration of how she prepared for the exam. The student rates (a version of self-grade) how often she self-tested or compared material in the text with that presented in class, or the prompts may ask open-ended queries to which the student writes responses. Both approaches force students to confront what they did and how those actions affected their performance.
Still more focus and reflection occur if students self-assess—say they rate their performance in a group—and that’s followed with peer feedback on the same performance. Many teachers experience the same dissonance that results. The teacher’s assessment of how well a course has gone is not confirmed by student ratings, and the disconnect causes the teacher’s stomach to knot, anger to flash, and disbelief to descend. Disagreeable side effects, yes, but they’re experienced along with the benefits of having to reconsider the accuracy of self-assessments.
Practice does improve the accuracy of self-assessments, although mixed research results indicate that improvement is not an automatic outcome. When students self-grade, the evidence pretty consistently shows that lower-performing students evaluate their work higher than it merits. Higher-performing students make more accurate assessments of their work. Accuracy improves if the evaluator uses an understandable set of criteria and focused self-assessment occurs regularly, not just once in a while. Good research support exists for the power of external feedback to change self-assessments—both the specific assessment of a performance and the more global understanding of oneself (for example, see Sridharan & Boud, 2019). Research almost makes clear what most teachers know: most college curricula don’t provide students with many opportunities to practice self-assessment.
Efforts to focus self-assessments help teachers as well. Whether it’s a look at a specific aspect of teaching—say, the use of questions, how the teach clarifies explanations, or uses examples—or a more global view of instruction, close analysis develops deeper understanding and that enables teachers to implement changes purposefully.
The differences between self-assessment that equates with reflection and assessment that’s more akin to self-grading are easy to see. But assessment activities can contain elements of both so that the two might be linked, wrapped around each other, or built upon one another. For teachers and students, focused self-assessment provides avenues for growth.
Sridharan, B., & Boud, D. (2019). The effects of peer judgements on teamwork and self-assessment ability in collaborative group work. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 44(6), 894–909. https://doi.org/10.1080/02602938.2018.1545898