In the long run, the most useful form of assessment is self-assessment, right? We want our students to know whether they’ve finished a task without asking someone else; to know whether they need help, more research, or polish; to know whether they have done or created quality work. With such skills, highly anxious students might find some calm and confidence, while students who currently turn in assignments that are incomplete or weak would persist to finish and improve them. Certainly peers, teachers, parents, and eventually bosses will have feedback and assessments to offer as well. But, students who learn to assess from the inside need less assessment from the outside.
Accurate and constructive self-assessment is not ruthless self-condemnation nor is it rose-colored self-aggrandizement. Teens easily move to these extremes; supportive adults can help them find a more useful middle ground. Accurate and constructive self-assessment is based on understanding the task required, having a sense of standards or samples of quality work, identifying and taking improvement steps, all building confidence and motivation for future efforts.
If accurate and constructive self-assessment is our goal, how do we help students develop the skills involved? Guidance, practice, coaching, and more practice. How teens spend their time changes their brain. How they spend their time frequently and repeatedly changes their brain more. Adolescents’ brains are especially plastic, constantly growing new connections. They have to practice self-assessment to develop the brain pathways to learn the complicated array of skills involved with reflecting, taking responsibility, and adjusting plans, behaviors, resources, or habits. Their brains are constantly pruning away connections deemed not needed. So self-assessment has to be a regular practice to become a strong skill.
Think about the lessons you taught yesterday. How often were students self-assessing their progress? Here are two tools from Teaching the Whole Teen: Everyday Practices That Promote Success and Resilience in School and Life that you could weave into your classroom practices tomorrow.
Quick regular self-assessment routine: On almost any classroom assignment that students hand in, they can write a number from 1-4 in the corner denoting:
4 = I totally understand. I could help teach it!
3 = I understand it.
2 = I understand some parts; others are fuzzy.
1 = I really don’t understand it yet.
You could then use this information to organize support and extension activities. (p. 127)
Make building constructive learning habits an explicit topic. (p. 123) Consider the difference between outcome goals, effort goals, and learning habits. An outcome, such as getting an A on a test, is the result of many efforts – perhaps note-taking, studying regularly, identifying gaps in understanding, asking questions in class – which if practiced regularly become learning habits. Focusing on the outcome (doing well on a test) without focusing on improving efforts is just wishful thinking. Effective goal setting about outcomes includes committing to and taking steps to reach the outcome.
Discuss with students the difference between outcome goals, effort goals, and learning habits. Brainstorm what some effort goals might be. Be sure to include a wide range since different efforts will help different students. Some could participate more often in class; others could participate in a more restrained way to spend more time listening to other’s views or organizing their thoughts. Some could clean out their backpacks more often or figure out a new way to keep track of homework. Others could do homework with less isolation and more stress-reducing breaks. On collaborative projects there are additional habits, such as coordinating with partners or giving and listening to feedback. Students who are conscious of their efforts and work to improve their learning habits grow their own brains into more powerful learning machines, able to self-assess, adjust, and improve.
Use Tool 7-2, “Building Constructive Learning Habits,” from Teaching the Whole Teen to set goals for improving learning habits. Every step involves self-assessing – noticing habits that are already strong and a habit that needs to be stronger, identifying steps to build the new habit, and monitoring progress each day. Be sure to check on students’ progress with their learning habits over the next few weeks. Having one discussion about learning habits could spark some new temporary brain connections. Brain connections that are revisited, reinforced, and practiced, however, become a default pathway, more nuanced and complex with each use. When self-assessment becomes a habit, supported by our consistent coaching, the success students have in school becomes the foundation for success throughout life.