Developing Students’ Self-Assessment Skills

I’ve been rereading some of the research on student self-assessment and thinking about how students develop these skills. They are important in college, all but essential in most professions, but they’re rarely taught explicitly. We assume (or hope) they’re the kind of skills student can pick up on their own, even though most of us see evidence to the contrary. Many students, especially beginning ones, routinely overestimate their ability and underestimate the difficulty of course content. How often did I hear this comment about my courses: “A communication course? Gotta be a piece of cake. I’ve been talking since I was 3.”

The research corroborates what we see in our classes. David Boud, who’s made student self-assessment a major focus of his career, co-authored a now classic review of research which found that student estimations of their grades were routinely higher than the assessments of their teachers. Part of that may be wishful thinking—students reporting the grade they’d like or hope to have.

But self-assessment, as it’s written about by the experts, doesn’t replace teacher grades with ones provided by students. This is formative self-assessment—the ability to look at your work and know (or have a pretty good sense) of what’s good and what needs to be improved. It’s the ability to critique how you did something, the ability to learn from your mistakes, to use more of what works and less of what didn’t the next time. It’s a two-pronged assessment, an interrogation of what you produce (your work) and how well you completed it (your performance).

The research in this area is significant with many findings well established. Self-assessment ability correlates with achievement in an interesting albeit convoluted way. High achieving students tend to under-estimate their performance and those in low-achieving cohorts over estimate theirs. Low achieving students also have more difficulty learning to make accurate self-assessments.

Boud and various colleagues point out that it’s a complex skill that confronts the learner with challenging data. So, for example, a student reports the grade he thinks he’s earned on a paper, or using a criteria he rates his contributions to a group project. Students are more honest if they know the instructor giving the grade isn’t going to see their self-assessment. Then the student considers both assessments, his own and the teacher’s, and reflects on why they aren’t the same. For skill development to start, students have to reconsider the reasons they used to justify that self-assessment. What’s wrong with those reasons? What did the teacher see in their work or performance that they missed? What’s involved is the ability to make judgments, which Boud (and colleagues) point out is not developed after one or two such exercises. Accurate self-assessment requires multiple opportunities to practice within courses and across them. Because the most important goal isn’t agreement between teacher and student assessments. The ultimate goal is for students to make accurate judgments on their own.

I fear we are not doing as much as we should to develop this skill. Yes, we already have a thousand and one things we need to be doing with students. So, we use what time we can take, first, to make students aware of the usefulness, indeed necessity, of the skill. Then we can provide efficient self-assessment opportunities, such as group members rating their contributions in specified categories, getting rated by the rest of the group, and then seeing a comparison of those ratings. We can also ask pointed questions: “Given where you’re headed professionally, what communications skills do you need that you don’t yet have?” We could also be looking at the curricula in our programs, and asking as a department if self-assessment skills are being developed to the extent they should and if not, where and when are they best taught.

References (to the classic review of research and to a more recent study, which is highlighted in the December issue of The Teaching Professor):

Falchikov, N., and Boud, D. “Student Self-Assessment in Higher Education: A Meta-Analysis.” Review of Educational Research, 1989, 59 (4), 395-430.

Boud, D., Lawson, R., and Thompson, D. “Does Student Engagement in Self-Assessment Calibrate Their Judgement Over Time?” Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 2013, 38 (3), 941-956.

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