Teaching Strategies

Self-Assessment in Middle School

Inspired by John Hattie, a middle school math teacher encourages students to articulate and measure their own learning.

August 6, 2018
©Shutterstock/Diego Cervo

Four years ago, I was introduced to the work of John Hattie, which changed my vision of my role as an educator. Hattie convinced me to think of myself as a change agent who could apply the tools of Visible Learning to guide my students to succeed in math beyond their own expectations.

To do this, I had to create a classroom where my students knew exactly what they were learning, how well they were doing, and where that learning would take them.

Learning Targets

Some teachers don’t appreciate objectives or learning targets, but I would urge them to consider the following question: How can we expect our struggling students to succeed if we don’t tell them what it is that we want them to learn?

I now begin my lessons with an “I can” statement that pinpoints the skill and/or knowledge that I aim for my students to gain—e.g., “I can describe the movement of three basic rigid motions on a coordinate plane” or “I can calculate the missing side lengths of similar shapes.” The precision of my learning targets sharpens and streamlines my lesson plans, and allows me to create formative assessments that shape my planning going forward.

However, the primary benefit of using learning targets is that they allow students to articulate and measure their own learning. For me as a math teacher, there’s nothing more rewarding than witnessing my students engaged in a mathematical discussion, and learning targets offer the language to begin these discussions.

After sharing a learning target, I display for two or three minutes all of the learning targets in the unit we’re studying. I use this broad overview to conduct a brief class discussion on what we’ve learned thus far and where this learning is taking us.

This is an opportunity for me to ask a few review questions and build vocabulary, allow students to articulate their own understanding of the concepts covered, and give meaning to these ideas by describing where our work is taking us.

Checkpoints and Self-Assessment

When it comes time to monitor my students’ understanding, I ask checkpoint questions aligned with our learning targets. Such checkpoints are ungraded quizzes, formative assessments that allow me to gauge where my students need help. They also give students the opportunity to track their own understanding of the learning targets as we progress through the unit.

I correct the assessment using a highlighter, and the lack of a grade along with the strategic use of the highlighter allows students to focus on what is most important about the assessment—the learning targets where they need to improve.

The ultimate goal of learning targets is to build self-regulating, articulate students who can boost their own progress through self-assessment. So after a checkpoint, I provide students the opportunity to assess their own progress using a rubric where they can rate their proficiency on our learning targets.

Within a unit, I give students three or four checkpoints (including one that covers the full unit), providing them with several pieces of data to assess their own learning, learn from their mistakes, and improve in preparation for the final, graded unit assessment.


Of course, some students still struggle to succeed. Therefore, I offer them what they need most—more time. When a student scores below proficient on the unit assessment, I ask them to come after school, and I use that time to review the concepts they’re still struggling to grasp.

The most important part of this retake process is getting students to articulate their mistake and their new understanding of how to solve the problem correctly. If there’s time, I’ll give them a new assessment to further show their progress. However, most often the retake is an in-depth discussion that I have with a student or a small group of students that allows them to fortify their understanding of the learning targets they missed, assures me that they have the skills they need to move forward in the curriculum, and earns them a passing grade for the assessment.

The Portfolio

In my final piece of assessment, I ask students to do my job and assign themselves a grade, using evidence to support their claim.

This evidence comes in the form of a portfolio with three elements. The first element asks students to submit one or more checkpoints to demonstrate growth in understanding of a math concept we’ve covered. These submissions are accompanied by a written paragraph articulating the student’s journey to deeper understanding. The second element of the portfolio is a piece of either homework or classwork that helped the student contribute to a class or small group discussion, with a paragraph detailing the ideas discussed. In the final element, students  write about a concept we’ve covered, explaining how they could use it in the real world, how it connects to their understanding of other mathematical concepts, or what they find cool about the mathematical ideas behind the concept.

My learning targets are posted online for students to review, and they have their checkpoints and unit assessments to display their progress. I give them a few minutes each week to think about their portfolios, make notes, and put work aside for possible use. I then use students’ statistical grades alongside their own self-assessments to generate their grade.

Providing my students with clarity through the use of learning targets has been a priority for me over the past four years. This practice has helped my students better articulate their ideas in math and strengthened their ability to self-assess, which in turn has increased their success in math.

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  • Teaching Strategies
  • Math
  • 6-8 Middle School

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