What and how we assess speaks to what we value.
Many STEM educators would say that aside from concept knowledge, they want their students to learn how to engage in iteration, use the engineering design process, take risks, learn from their mistakes, and enjoy the process of learning, not just the product. These are goals that look beyond the classroom, to how students’ educational experiences will prepare them for the future and the 21st century skills that they will need as they enter the proverbial ‘real world.’ However, even with these goals, much of our current assessment practices do not speak to these values. Students may be engaging in project based learning, and hands-on building, iterating, and documentation; yet they are given a grade based on a final product. This then breaks the process over product paradigm – sending the mixed message that the process is not truly valued, when in fact, it is likely the exact opposite.
"Assessment is something that should be done with students, not to students". 1 What we assign a value to (like a grade) is what students interpret as being of value. It follows then that if we do not give a value to students’ own voices in their learning, we are giving the impression that their voice does not hold value in our classrooms. Student self-assessment enables teachers and students to be partners in learning, and gives value to that partnership; engaging students as more active participants in their learning and honoring the process of learning as just that – a valuable process. Student self-assessment is one of the most powerful tools in a teacher’s toolbox to promote student agency, engagement, understanding, and classroom culture 2, 3.
Student self-assessment supports students’ ownership and agency in their learning.
Oftentimes educators use the analogy of the co-pilot to describe being in partnership with students. If we think about this analogy a little further, an effective co-pilot knows where we are trying to go, has the tools at their disposal to be able to navigate, problem-solve and help solve problems along the way, and can ask questions and practice driving to learn from the other co-pilot. Student self-assessment aims to do the same thing. Imagine trying to be a co-pilot but not having any idea where your destination is, or a map to use for reference, and your controls didn’t actually work. You’d essentially just be sitting in the front seat as a glorified passenger. This is the position that traditional assessment tends to put students in. Student self-assessment however, gives them the opportunity to help chart a course for learning, using all the tools at their disposal to do so.
The first step of charting a course is knowing the destination. As such, co-creating learning targets with students gives them a voice in their destination. Together, teachers and students can look at a shared goal, like a STEM Lab competition game,4 and together figure out what they need to learn, practice, and do in order to get there. This process gives students the ability to make connections between what they already know and how they will apply it in this new context, as well as gives teachers insight into how well students understand the task at hand.
Creating learning targets together ensures that teachers and students are on the same page about what they are trying to achieve. Moreover, having students’ voices clearly in the learning targets, makes their agency and ownership present in a visible and concrete way. Assessment originates from these learning targets, so students will be assessed on the goals they have set for themselves, placing them in the driver’s seat of assessment. To learn more about how to co-create learning targets with students, see these articles for VEX IQ (2nd generation) STEM Lab Units or VEX EXP STEM Lab Units.
Student self-assessment engages students and teachers in the process of learning together, not just in creating a product or performance.
Assessment from this perspective, is ongoing, and not just a culmination of a lesson or Unit of study. “In STEM classrooms, where students are engaged for days, maybe weeks, on designing and iterating on a solution to a problem or challenge, it is necessary for a teacher to evaluate the students’ understanding. This evaluation can then ‘form’ the instruction”.5 As students continue to work through a STEM Lab Unit, the teacher can check for understanding in a variety of ways throughout a Lesson or Unit’s activities, to see how students are progressing towards their learning targets.
For instance, if a learning target says ‘I can to code my robot to lift and move an object’ and students are struggling to code the claw and arm on the Clawbot to consistently move an object in practice, then the teacher can use that visible and verbal feedback to give students additional practice or instruction about coding the individual motors on the robot. The purpose of assessment is not to judge student performance at a particular moment in time, but to capture student learning and the gaps therein over time. As such, teaching and assessment go hand in hand, and give students a voice in the trajectory of their instruction.
Student self-assessment is part of a classroom culture of learning, where students can see failures as opportunities, not punishments.
If part of our goal is to create a classroom culture where students are free to be risk-takers, to see mistakes as opportunities to learn, to learn through iteration, to collaborate and communicate with one another to build their collective understanding – then student self-assessment is the foundation upon which that culture is built. In order for students to be successful in assessing their own learning, they need to be comfortable being honest and potentially vulnerable with their peers and teachers.
“People’s willingness to self-report, and the depth and quality of those assessments, is directly related to the safety and stability they sense in the environment. Learning, and the successes and struggles we experience in pursuing it, is inherently personal. We cannot expect everyone to immediately self-report on something this sensitive. Rather, we need to develop a sense of community – one in which sharing is natural, healthy, and even fun.”6
As teachers, we do many, many things to make our classrooms, lessons, and learning fun and engaging; however, that mentality often stops when it comes to assessment 7, thereby separating assessment from learning. If we are using project-based learning and hands-on activities, classroom competitions, and the engineering design process while we are teaching, but then assess with only a one-shot multiple-choice test, the credibility we built in terms of valuing students’ voices and participation is broken. Students see the test and the grade (the two things controlled by the teacher) as holding weight, and thus are less likely to take risks, talk about their failures, or ask questions, because they fear that it will reflect on that end product assessment. A grade on a project can signal an end result, a point at which learning stops, and a door closes.8 Incorporating student self-assessment can keep that door open.
Student self-assessments allow students to continue that iterative process to its fruition, so that even if there is a grade at the end of a project or Unit or semester, they have actively had a voice in what that grade should be. It was something determined with them, not assigned to them based on seemingly arbitrary criteria. Iteration can be a meaningful part of assessment, as retesting has been shown to help students learn;9, 10 especially when they can expect ongoing assessment as part of the structure of a class.11 But this is only possible when students feel safe enough to express vulnerability, or to ask questions, or to fail in a classroom competition – because the students are confident that those mistaken moments will be a part of a bigger picture, and not something they will be ultimately penalized for.
“Students are in a unique position to report on their own learning, so it’s imperative that we ask them”.12
It’s important to note that incorporating student self-assessment doesn’t mean that students can give themselves any grade they want, without reason. Students and teachers reach a consensus about learning based on their shared evidence. For instance, during a debrief conversation, a student can speak to how well they met a learning target using evidence from their engineering notebook, data from competition matches, and conversations with their teammates. The teacher can ask questions if they have differing opinions, so that the teacher and student can be on the same page about the learning trajectory. If a student rates themselves as an ‘expert’ on a learning target, saying that ‘they understand the target well enough to teach it to someone else’ the teacher can then ask them to explain that concept, or essentially ‘teach’ it to demonstrate that level of understanding. To learn more about facilitating effective debrief conversations, see this article.
There is sometimes concern for how accurate students will be in their self-reporting, yet there is evidence that students can be “remarkably accurate in predicting their own success”.13 Giving students a structure for their self-reporting, and clear expectations for the evidence that they will need to support their statements, supports student accuracy14, and gives solid groundwork for a conversation about their learning. Involving students in their learning throughout the assessment process, supports the development of a growth mindset as well, as students can see a clear path to improving their own achievement.15
The more we involve students in all facets of learning, including assessment, the more accurate and shared understanding we can have about student progress and learning. Educators often talk about “preparing students for the ‘real world’”, and in many ways, student self-assessment is far closer to a real world scenario than taking a test and being given a grade. Students are going to need to know how to be effective and creative problem solvers, how to ask questions and work collaboratively, and how to gauge their performance in their careers. Student self-assessment gives students the tools to build these competencies, while in the safe space of a classroom culture that values learning above all else.