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For years, I held a very teacher-centered view of assessment. I would grade student work and use that to modify lessons and pull small groups. Students would receive a grade, which would then motivate them to work harder. Later, I started realizing that my feedback could help students determine what they knew, what they didn’t know, and what they needed to do next. Here, assessment shifted from a teacher task to a conversation between the teacher and the student. However, it remained one-sided until I started implementing self-assessments and peer assessments. I was skeptical at first. I thought students would cheat or, at a minimum, that they wouldn’t take the process seriously. I wasn’t sure their peer assessment feedback would be accurate.

To my surprise, students took the process seriously. They provided practical peer feedback and engaged in honest self-reflection. There were some growing pains (a topic I’ll be exploring in the next two weeks) but the key word there is growing. I watched my students grow in their self-awareness and metacogniton. I watched them grow into more self-directed learners. Meanwhile, this student ownership freed me up to provide better, more individualized feedback, through student conferencing.

Today, we’re going to explore what happens when students own the assessment process. It’s the first in a three-part series on empowered assessment.

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Empowering Students to Own the Assessment Process

Assessment is all around us. If you’re a skater at a skate park, you’re engaging in self-assessment every time you reflect on your progress and plan next steps. If you’re a runner training for a marathon, you look at time splits and compare it to your goals. If you’re a musician, you’re engaging in assessment every time you listen to yourself play and make modifications on your approach. As an author, you engage in self-assessment when you revise your work.

It’s not always individual. Often, assessment happens in community. If you’re a chef, you’re engaging in peer assessment when you ask a trusted fellow chef, “how does this taste?” If you’re an artist you might ask for an extra set of eyes on a particular project. If you’re an engineer, you might observe users to see if your design is working. If you do any kind of creative work, both self-assessment and peer assessment are vital for improving your craft.

It helps you refine your process and helps you improve your products. Assessment helps us figure how what we know, what we don’t know, and what steps we need to take in the future to master a skill or understand a concept at a deeper level. But what does this mean in the classroom? It starts with self-assessment. Here students engage in goal-setting: where they set goals, plan their approach, and keep track of the progress. They also engage in self-reflections. Here, they can reflect on their learning process but also focus on the strengths and weaknesses of their products, which then leads to new iterations. A similar option is a student survey with multiple choices, checkboxes, and Likert scales. In some cases, students might use a self-assessment rubric. Students are able to look at the progression from emerging to mastering with specific descriptions in various categories. They are able to gain an accurate view of how they are doing, while also having a clear picture of where they need to be. Students might also use checklists. These can be a powerful diagnostic tool that students use before, during, and after a task. When projects are done, they can present their work in a portfolio, where they reflect on what they’ve learned.

Peer assessment is also important. One option is the 20-minute peer feedback system. This begins with one student sharing their work or pitching an idea while the other student actively listens. It then moves into a chance to ask clarifying questions, get feedback, respond to feedback, and chart out next steps.

Another option is structured Feedback with Sentence Stems. Or you could use the 3-2-1 Structure. This is simple. Students provide three strengths, two areas of improvement and one question that they have. Or you could do a feedback carousel. Each group gets a stack of sticky notes and offers anonymous feedback as they move from group to group. Or you could keep it more open-ended with peer coaching. Students interview each other about the process, guide reflection, and provide feedback. We often think of classroom assessment as a conversation between teachers and students. But in life, students won’t always have a teacher to grade their work or provide them with necessary feedback. This is why we need self-assessment and peer assessment.

The more we can integrate this into our lessons, the better prepared our students will be for the creative life.

Five Reasons Students Should Own the Assessment Process

The following are five key reasons students should engage in frequent self-assessment and peer assessment.


1. Self-Assessment and Peer Assessment Save Time

In my first two years in the classroom, I spent anywhere from 15-20 hours a week grading papers. Sometimes I used a rubric. Other times I focused on qualitative feedback. Often, I used both approaches together. While this was exhausting, I often felt like I wasn’t doing enough. Students didn’t seem to use the feedback I gave them to improve their work. They didn’t seem to understand whether they had mastered the standards or accomplished the objectives. I worked tirelessly but my students didn’t seem to use any of the feedback I had given them.

When I shifted toward empowering students, I asked the question, “What am I doing for students that they could be doing for themselves?”

Assessment stood out as one of the core areas where I had been doing all of the work. So, I began implementing 1-3 self-assessments per week. Some of these were simply self-graded quizzes or a short reflections. Others were surveys or rubrics. By the end of the quarter, I launched our first student portfolio project. In the next semester, I began implementing peer feedback protocols for each lesson. Some of these were short, 1-3 minute turn-and-talks. Others were longer, like the 20 minute feedback system  or the mastermind structure.

I soon felt a difference in my schedule. I felt less exhausted and began to experience more rest and even restoration. I spent fewer hours per week assessing student work but I still had all the data I needed to modify instruction and plan lessons. Meanwhile, I had more time to plan lessons, gather materials, and conference with students. Because I didn’t have to carry the entire assessment load myself, I was able to offer more frequent, targeted feedback during lessons and then provide less frequent, longer feedback when I filled out project rubrics at the end of a unit. Honestly, assessment became fun. I know that’s an odd word for it but once it no longer felt frantic, I could finally enjoy providing meaningful feedback.

This had an immediate benefit on my students. I was more energetic and less stressed. I could spend more time providing authentic feedback and less time grading. Something else began to occur as well. I noticed that my students started using the feedback to improve their work. Because it was fully formative, they were less focused on a grade and instead focused on their learning. That’s when I realized this second benefit to student ownership of the assessment process.


2. Feedback Is More Practical When Students Own the Process

As teachers, we have a finite amount of time and energy. No matter how hard we work, we cannot grade every paper or provide meaningful feedback on every assignment. We cannot always correct every mistake when students practice a skill. We can’t clarify every misconception when students study big ideas and concepts. And yet, we know that the best feedback is timely, practical, and relevant.

When students engage in self-assessment, the feedback is immediate. There’s not a one-week delay between turning in an assignment and receiving feedback. Furthermore, students can focus on key areas of growth where they want to examine their progress and come up with next steps. This makes the feedback feel more relevant and practical. Similarly, when students engage in peer assessment, they get immediate feedback.

This doesn’t mean teacher feedback is irrelevant or untimely. As an educator, you are both a content expert and pedagogical expert. Students need your feedback in order to improve in their skills and conceptual development. There’s actually a danger in using only self-assessment because students might not know what they don’t know or what steps they need to take to improve. Similarly, peer feedback can backfire if it’s too vague, overly positive, or inaccurate. As the teacher, you still need to design systems that help students engage in meaningful self-assessment. We’ll be exploring what this looks like in an upcoming article but a quick, more traditional approach, would be to provide an answer key and let students determine what they got right, what they got wrong, and what they need to do next. This in turn, helps improve their metacognition. Which leads to the next idea . . .


3. Students Improve in their Metacognition

People debate about which subjects will prepare kids for the future – whether it’s engineering or coding or philosophy. The truth is, we can’t always predict what knowledge students will need in the future. Our students will need to navigate an ever-changing, complicated world. The scary thing is that the rules are constantly changing. The exciting thing is our students will someday rewrite these rules.

So, how do we prepare students for that future? I love how A.J. Juliani puts it, “Our job as teachers is not to ‘prepare’ kids for something; our job is to help kids learn to prepare themselves for anything.” In other words, they need to be adaptable and resilient. They need to be self-directed, meaning they are both self-starters and self-managers.

Self-direction Venn DiagramThis is why metacognition is so important. When students have strong metacognition skills, they are able to anticipate change and navigate complexity. But that doesn’t always happen. According to a Pascarella and Terenzini study, one of the most significant challenges college students face is managing their own learning.

However, it goes beyond success in college and career. If we want students to become lifelong learners, they need to know how to own their learning; which means they need to know how to think about thinking. I love the way the authors of How Learning Works put it, “To become self-directed learners, students must learn to assess the demands of the task, evaluate their own knowledge and skills, plan their approach, monitor their progress, and adjust their strategies as needed.”

The authors explain metacognition as a cycle:

It starts with the ability to assess the task at hand. Here, students have a clear picture of what they need to accomplish. This part sounds easy. However, this goes beyond simply reading instructions. It includes the ability to integrate prior knowledge with new knowledge and make connections between direct instruction and a new tasks. If a task feels too complicated, students can become overwhelmed and give up. Other times, they might oversimplify the task or get hung up on one specific detail.

In the second phase, students evaluate their own strengths and weaknesses. This can be tricky if students have an inaccurate view of their skills. Often, students who are highly skilled will suffer Imposter Syndrome, where they underestimate their skills because they are painfully aware of what they don’t know. On the other hand, students with a lower skill level might experience the Dunning Kruger Effect, where they overestimate their skills.

Afterward, students plan out their approach. Note that this does not have to be a detailed plan. In some cases, students might visualize where they need to be and what they need to do to get there. However, it’s interesting that experts tend to spend more time in planning than novices but are more effective in implementation, because novices experience more initial mistakes.

Students then take action and apply the strategies and monitor their progress, which leads to the next phase, where they reflect on their learning and adjust their approach. Here, they might determine new strategies that ultimately lead back to a re-assessment of the tasks. Effective problem-solvers are more likely to adjust their approach by highlighting what’s working and fixing what’s failing while poor problem-solvers are more likely to stick with an approach that isn’t working.

This cycle can happen rapidly or over a longer stretch of time. And it doesn’t always follow the sequence systematically. In some cases, it can almost feel so seamless that it’s invisible. However, even so, it is vital for learning. When students have strong metacognition skills, they are more likely to succeed in college, in their careers, and in life-long learning.

This is why it’s critical that students own the assessment process. They are able to figure out:

  • What they have already know (prior knowledge)
  • What they don’t know (areas of improvement)
  • What they want to master (their goals)
  • What they will do to improve (action plan)

By integrating small self-assessments, where students can get immediate feedback, they can move quickly through this cycle. Similarly, when students gain practical peer feedback, they have a more accurate view of what they know and what they don’t know, which helps them set goals and develop a plan of action.


4. Increased Buy-In Leads to Better Engagement

When students own the assessment process, they have a greater sense of buy-in. There’s a sense of control, or personal agency, in their learning. Students grow more aware of their progress as they navigate their learning. They’re more aware of what they know and what they need to know. In Empower, I shared a continuum of student agency from more teacher-oriented to more student-oriented.

Continuum of student agency from teacher-centered to student-centered. It goes from compliance to engagement to empowerment.On the left, we have compliance, where students engage in a task because it is required. Next, we shift toward engagement, where students engage in a task because of a desire to accomplish it. This task is still largely teacher-directed but it taps into student interests. Finally, we have empowerment, where students engage in a task out of a sense of ownership. Student-centered assessments are often in that space between engagement and empowerment. There’s a greater sense of ownership (leading to empowerment) but teachers will still design the assessment protocols.

Another way to think of assessment is through Schlechty’s Levels of Engagement:

When students own the assessment process, they are more likely to hit that place of true engagement instead of strategic compliance. If a student is actively assessing their own learning, they are not only focused but also committed to the learning at hand. This increased commitment is what shifts learning from strategic compliance to true engagement.


5. Students Develop Vital Lifelong Skills

Earlier I mentioned that we don’t always know what knowledge students will need for the future. Take coding for example. Some experts claim that coding is a critical skill and a new form of literacy. Coders will shape the future. Others believe that artificial intelligence and machine learning will replace coders within the next few decades and thus we are preparing students for jobs that won’t exist. As someone who has taught coding, I see it as a valuable skill, but not because it prepares students to code. Instead, coding teaches logic, syntax, and systems thinking. In certain respects, it’s similar to playing chess. In other ways, it’s like sketching a floor plan. And in other ways, it’s similar to learning a new language. Students might not need to learn a particular programming language but all students can benefit from systems thinking and logic. It’s not about programming. It’s about the transferable skills they can use anywhere.

In other words, in the future our students will need more than a set of core content skills. They’ll need transferable essential skills that they can use in any context. This is something Google learned a few years ago. They launched Project Oxygen as a way to determine what skills mattered most for employee success. They assumed the best predictor of employee success would be university program and grades, followed closely by STEM expertise. Instead, the top of their list was, “being a good coach; communicating and listening well; possessing insights into others (including others different values and points of view); having empathy toward and being supportive of one’s colleagues.” In other words, the most critical factors for success involved collaboration.

Later, when they studied their teams in Project Aristotle, they found the top skills were, “equality, generosity, curiosity toward the ideas of your teammates, empathy, and emotional intelligence.”

Some people call these “soft skills” but I hate that term. There is nothing soft about communication, collaboration, or creativity. Others call these “21st Century Skills,” but these skills are timeless. Yes, we need them in this century but we needed them last century as well. Moreover, we can help prepare students for the future by empowering them in the present.

The best way to prepare students for the future is by empowering them in the presentWhen students own the assessment process, they grow in self-awareness and intellectual humility. They learn how to engage in goal-setting, how to monitor their progress, and, if this is embedded within PBL, they learn project management. As students assess their strengths and weaknesses and try new approaches, they grow more resilient. They engage in iterative thinking and often come up with novel approaches for problem-solving.  When students engage in peer assessment, they learn how to “be a good coach.” They learn how to give and receive feedback. They learn how to collaborate and problem solve. In other words, when we empower students to own the assessment process, we empower students to become lifelong learners.


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John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me


  • Sharon Day says:

    This article is the best thing I have read for ages. As a school leader in a primary (you call it elementary) school in South Australia where our current focus is on effective feedback, it really hit the target for me. Also as a teacher of some 35 years, I too have been through the phases you describe and I agree with you that when students own the learning, we’ve hit the sweet spot. I am finding that specific feedback relating to the success criteria is the most useful in terms of really narrowing the focus and making the most of learning time.

    I relate the section on Imposter Syndrome and Dunning Kruger effect to staff professional learning as well. I have listened to the most proficient teachers downplay their expertise and the less skilled exaggerate theirs. That’s why we interview students so often now, as an indicator of what’s really working in classrooms.

    Your text is easy to read and understand and the visuals are great. I plan to use this article as future professional learning with our team. I don’t sign up for very many email subscriptions but I’ve signed up for yours. Thank you!

  • This was really enlightening. It is interesting to think teachers are helping students learn and reach their potential by asking them to assess themselves and other peers on a regular basis. I truly believe that I spend hours grading and giving feedback, but it is rare that a student really reads my suggestions and puts them into practice. It seems most look at the grade rather than helpful suggestions. Self-assessment gives them ownership to refine, improve, and figure out what he/she knows or doesn’t know. This helps students improve their metacognition and increase their lifelong learning skills. It is a good plan to empower students to learn goal setting, empathy, problem-solving, and resiliency in the ever-changing world in which we all live.

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