George Lucas Educational Foundation

Self-Assessment: A Powerful Tool to Improve Student Learning and Understanding

April 14, 2016 Updated April 11, 2016

Recently I had students walk a mile in my shoes and do some grading. Here's 5 suggestions for implementing it in your class.

A conversation with a peer changed the way I wanted to try assessing my students. My friend Mike Kaufman met with me to talk about our school’s student-led conference process. Mike was interested in changing our current model from a focus on results to a focus on process - how did you achieve it vs what did you achieve.  

Anyhow, that discussion got me thinking about the writing my students had been doing. Up until this point, my students wrote papers and I graded them. (The work has always done as a Google Document that was shared with me. While students wrote, I would virtually “pop” into their work and see how they were progressing. Students who needed some assistance were approached for some one-on-one time with me.)

I keep a Google Sheets record of all the comments/concerns I have with each student’s writing assignments. When going over my records, I noticed that certain students continued to make the same kinds of errors in every writing assignment they turned in. They were getting good grades, but they clearly were not growing as writers.

I tried to think of way to build in more thinking/reflection/metacognition into my writing process and - thanks to my colleague Mike - came up with a self-assessment activity.

I have just completed the process with all of my blocks and here are some of the key steps I learned along the way:

1. Simplify your rubric before you begin. Break it down into the most basic criteria. For instance, if you asked for a five-paragraph essay, begin by having students count their paragraphs. Do they have 5? Boom! Give themselves a grade! Think of it like an assembly line, but instead of putting a car together, you are putting thinking together.

2. Go through the simplified rubric with your students - proceed step by step.

3. Provide examples of the ideas/concepts/examples you are hoping the students highlight. Better yet, ask questions to solicit the information from the students. For instance, if the students are assessing a persuasive paragraph, ask them something like “What kinds of words/phrases should you include to persuade someone to do something?” If you are checking for conventions, like spelling, you could ask “In a letter about slavery, what sort of words would tend to be misspelled? Would it be words like ‘the’ or ‘slave’? No, it would be words like….?” This type of open-ended question can prompt a great discussion and often students will shout out ideas to each other.

4. Literally have the students highlight the elements in their writing that you talk about as you proceed through the rubric. You could even have a color-based system - yellow for spelling errors, purple for good details included, green for run-on sentences.

5. At all costs, avoid situations where students give up and ask you to assess their work. A few students tried to do the old “I’m not sure if this paragraph has enough evidence. Can you read it for me?” The object is to have the students do the assessing. Even if they do it poorly, it is better for them to do the work than for you to spoon feed it to them.

Here’s how my particular experience worked:

We just finished watching (a heavily censored version of) the film 12 Years a Slave and afterwards wrote a POV letter from one of the characters to another. I had the students pull up their letters on their Google drive.

On the screen, I projected the rubric I created for this particular assignment.

I showed the rubric to the students and we discussed the project and what my expectations were. Then, I showed the students a breakdown of the rubric - a simplified listing of my expectations. These were broken down into 3 main criteria: Organization, Conventions and Ideas.

Then, we went through each part of these criteria while students followed along in their letters.

We started with the most basic of the criteria: in the rubric I asked for a three-paragraph letter. So, I had students count their paragraphs. Did they have three paragraphs? If so, then they gave themselves a score out of 10.

Next, my rubric asked for each paragraph to perform a particular function. For instance:

  • Paragraph 1 was a summary of the life of one of the film characters (the hero of 12 Years a Slave, Solomon Northup).
  • Paragraph 2 was an overview of the emotions (both positive and negative) that Solomon felt about his first owner, Mr. Ford.
  • Paragraph 3 was a persuasive paragraph challenging Mr. Ford’s beliefs about slavery and asking him to give up slavery and join the abolitionist movement.  

I asked the students to review their paragraphs and determine if each of their 3 paragraphs focused on the above three objectives. If so, they gave themselves a score out of 10 for each paragraph.

This was the end of criteria 1, so students calculated the average and came up with a total out of 10.

We did the same for Conventions (looking at spelling, punctuation, capitalization, etc. - scored out of 5) and Ideas (focusing on the evidence students provided to support their ideas - scored out of 10).

At the end, the students had a total score out of 25 for their letter.

Now, while the students were assessing their own work, they were also correcting/changing their work. And, some of you might feel like this is cheating. After all, we were supposed to be grading a final version of a project.

That’s not how I see it. I did not tell students what changes to make in their letter. I simply showed them what the expectations were. They reviewed their work and they determined whether or not they met the expectations. And, if they did not, they made the necessary changes.

This self-assessment process was about improving writing. It was about learning. And the students certainly learned and improved their work.

Self-assessment is a powerful tool that triggers some deep thinking. Labeled Evaluation, the ability to critically think about your own work rests at the top of Bloom’s Taxonomy.

Self-assessment helped me learn also. I learned that my rubrics, although seemingly clear, probably need to be simplified and then clearly explained before we begin a project. Also, I need to build in a middle step in the process - a step similar to that above - where students can review and edit their work.

This experience reminded me of a quote about the writing craft: “Nothing good is ever written. Everything great is rewritten.”

Originally posted at

This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we’ve preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.

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  • Assessment
  • Critical Thinking
  • 6-8 Middle School

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