Students and Self-Assessment: Is Accuracy Possible?

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A new study in Active Learning in Higher Education (see reference below) motivated me to take another look at the research on student self-assessment. It’s decidedly mixed, which isn’t unexpected given the range of self-assessment tasks used in the research, not to mention cohort and methodological differences. In this most recent work students assessed an oral presentation they’d given using a rubric. Their peers and the teacher also evaluated it. These latter assessments tended to agree with each other, while self-assessments were higher than those of peers and the teacher. Male students rated their performances higher than female students did. Students with high teacher and peer evaluations made more accurate self-assessments than those who received low teacher and peer scores did.

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Often missing in this work on self-assessment is recognition that sharing a self-assessment with others may not reveal what the student honestly believes about their performance. If you’re a student and the teacher or some other assessor asks how you did, the thought has to cross your mind that it might behoove to say you did well because, even though it’s a long-shot, your assessment might influence the person judging your work. Even more significant may be the need to save face in front of the teacher or assessor. If you admit that you did poorly, the person assessing you might think you’re stupid and unable to learn. The bottom line: students want those evaluating their performance to think positively about them. Do those feelings influence a self-assessment submitted as part of a research project? I don’t know, and I couldn’t find any work that addresses that question.

What matters more than whether the student is honest with the assessor is their developing the ability to accurately self-assess—to step back, look at something they’ve done, and give it a balanced critique. It’s a terribly important skill for professionals (dare I say for people generally?). Without it, professional and personal success is less likely, and unexpected surprises and disappointments are more likely to be the norm.

Grading responsibilities belong to the teacher. The importance of grades and the vested interest students have in getting good ones make it difficult (or nigh impossible) to let students grade their work. For that reason, in most courses there’re few or no opportunities for students to self-assess, and it’s a skill that doesn’t develop without practice.

Are there ways teachers could do more to help students develop this skill? I think so. We can start by talking about the importance of being able to self-assess and addressing some of the barriers that make it hard to be objective about one’s own work. That objectivity grows from the understanding that it’s an assessment of what you did once, not a measure of your value as a human being. Moreover, what you accomplished once does not prescribe how you’ll do the next time. The emotional connection between a person and a performance is necessary. Good work results when people care passionately about what they’re doing. But it also results from the ability to disconnect, step back, and scrutinize the inside from the outside.

Accurate self-assessment is cultivated with a constructive attitude about improvement. Every piece of work can be improved. Every performance includes the opportunity to do better. “When you do this next time, how will you improve it?” ought to be a question teachers regularly ask students. And they ought to ask it with the expectation that students unused to self-assessment will not give a good answer. Teacher guidance is needed, but guidance is not telling students what to improve. That may improve their work, but it doesn’t develop self-assessment skills.

We need to design our courses to encourage students to look at their work and confront it honestly. It would help and motivate most of them if the teacher modeled how to self-assess not on the students’ work but on something the teacher has done—say, a publication, a conference presentation, or a grant application. It’s a powerful learning moment when students see teachers admitting mistakes, making corrections, worrying about the quality, and otherwise showing what’s being done to make it better.      

Reference

Gonzalez-Betancor, S. M., Bolivar-Cruz, A., & Verano-Tacoronte, D. (2019). Self-assessment accuracy in higher education: The influence of gender and performance of university students. Active Learning in Higher Education, 20(2), 101–114. https://doi.org/10.1177/1469787417735604

  • Note: This is a well-referenced article. Many key sources on student self-assessment are highlighted and appear in the bibliography.