Experiments in self-assessment

This semester, I’ve been experimenting with self-assessment. Students in my undergraduate 4000-level online course submit weekly self-assessments in which they fill out a chart proposing the number of points they think they’ve earned on their activities that week and they write a paragraph-long reflection of what they’ve learned and how they plan to improve.

So far, it’s been going fairly well. Of the 23 undergraduate students who submitted midterm surveys, 65% said that self-assessments had a positive effect on how they thought about grades. Most of the rest were neutral or didn’t provide an answer, and only a couple had negative things to say about the self-assessment assignments.

The guidelines I created for this assignment, based on Kris Shaffer’s model, are my first attempt at balancing student agency and self-determination with fairness and accountability. My guidelines are, perhaps, excessively complex and micro-managed. Early on in the semester, I spent a lot of time helping students understand how to follow all my directions in this assignment. For example, I’m definitely going to re-think the late penalties I initially developed, because they’ve caused the most problems for students.

On the mid-semester feedback for this course, some of the students’ comments indicate just how durable the focus on grades can be. One student wrote:

“I do it because it is graded, I don’t think I would do something like that if it wasn’t graded.”’

Another student didn’t see the value of self-assessment and revision, and made a valid point:

“I think it is somewhat pointless to self-assess if ultimately the teacher is giving the grades.”

This is a tension I don’t know how to resolve yet. I want students to have as much autonomy and control over their learning as possible, but I also want an A for one student to mean the same thing as an A for another student. So if I leave the standards entirely up to the students, then the same grade could reflect a different level of mastery for different students.

One of the most negative comments was that the self-assessments felt like “busy work.”

All these negative comments tell me that I need to spend more time next semester on helping students understand the rationale for self-assessments and what they can get out of the process.

Despite these few complaints, I’ve been pleased to see that most of the students’ comments were positive. Most said that the self-assessments helped them reflect on the week and solidify concepts, and a few noted that it was good practice for their future careers:

“I think this is a great way of demonstrating your support of students as adults. Most companies require ongoing self-assessments, so it is a great tool that’s useful beyond the classroom.”

Students really appreciated having the opportunity to revise their weekly study question answers after meeting with their teams and reading the answer keys I post each week. I encourage this process of revision because my goal is that as many students as possible master the concepts and practice applying them. So if some people need more help to get there, that’s fine.

“It allows you to learn and change your thought process on questions you may have gotten wrong, instead of simply finding out you got something wrong, losing points, and calling it good”

What’s particularly valuable about this approach is that it might encourage a growth mindset and the idea that you can accomplish something difficult if you ask for help and consult the right resources.

For a number of students, I saw comments that indicated that self-assessing increased their intrinsic motivation to learn and improve. Some students noted that reflecting on their work each week made them more accountable:

“I think that the self-assessment forces you to have to acknowledge your own effort in the assignment. Did you do all that you should have – or are you just breezing by?”

The benefit of this for some is that they can work to improve week-to-week:

“The self-assessments challenge me to work harder in the following week because I am able to reflect on how I did in a particular week and what I can change for the next week’s module.”

And a few wrote that it led them to think about education differently – this comment describes exactly what I was hoping to achieve:

“It makes me realize, for the first time in my academic career, that grades should be a secondary concern to actually learning something and growing from a course.”

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