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Adventures in Assessment

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I've been tinkering with assessment for the past several years. My role at the district had me knee deep in shifting the notion of Assessment and Evaluation from primarily assessment OF learning to assessment FOR learning. Simply put, a stronger focus on formative and less on summative. That's the simplistic summary but it included moving much of the control over to the student. It certainly wasn't perfect, not always embraced, and challenging to implement. However, at its core, the idea of empowering students to assess their own work is a goal I've been moving towards in my own teaching practices at the University of Regina. 

In past classes, I've usually offered my students some opportunity to assess themselves, whether it was against a rubric, or a self designed criteria. It's shocking how many students struggle with this idea. Here they are, students of 13 years of schooling plus a few years of higher education and they aren't sure how to assess themselves. That's scary. 

I have never given my students a test. I'm struggling to see the value, particularly in my course, where the intent is to provide students an overview of the way technology can be used to support learning and the way in which it's influencing learning in 2012. 

Each term I tweak and change assignments according to the time I have, sometimes offering the course in a six week period as opposed to a full semester influences those decisions.  I've always allowed my students to play with the weighting which allows them to find their strengths and preferences and play to them. I've always given them a choice to pursue their own interests within the broad confines of technology and learning.  I've never understood why our schools are so focused on our weaknesses. Not to say we ignore them but being the best we can be usually involves finding out what we're good at and pursuing our passions. Here's how I shared my assessment practices for this winter's term. 

The biggest change this term was to have my students assess themselves for the entire course. In the past, it was required for a few assignments but not all. This term I was clear that they were going to tell me their grade and justify it. As long as their documentation was clear and from my perspective truthful, that's the grade they would receive. I suppose in some respects, I'm still assessing, assessing their assessments but my goal was to do two things. First to empower them to think deeply about their learning. While I've always advocated for reflection, I tried to emphasize more documentation. I still need to structure this better but that was my intent. Secondly I wanted the pressure of grading to be removed from learning.  When assessment becomes burdensome, it has lost much, if not all, of its usefulness. That goal produced some interesting results. A few students really struggled and others immediately felt a sense of relief. One idea I shared was that they had to at times be comfortable with "good enough." As students, they had other courses and responsibilities; my course was but one of many learning opportunities. There was going to be times where they simply couldn't invest the time needed to gain the most of an experience, but they didn't need to feel guilty about that.

My students know that I have little use for grades. The 100 point scale in particular is a farce in most cases. If I am forced to rank students either against each other or against some criteria the best I can hope for is placing them in perhaps a three or four point scale. Even then ... what my students need from me is not a grade but feedback and support to foster greater learning. One of the reasons I'm moving away from rubrics is based somewhat on the ideas of Alfie Kohn but also because I can't possibly know all the potential for learning if I design projects that allow them to own them. That's why on my assignment page I posted, "things to consider" knowing it might not be an exhaustive list and that they should feel free listing unintended outcomes. 

Of my 17 students, the grades ranged from 68-89. That's very typical of the grades I've given in the past.  I really don't know what that means either. I don't believe we can measure real learning, we can only document it. 

So I'm wondering if you're ready to let your students assess themselves. Not as some experiment where you end up grading them apart but where you really give the reigns over to them? If not, is it about trust? Is it about readiness? Fear?

I'm thinking that even 6 year olds should be able to assess themselves if we give them the tools and expectations. As far as trust goes, it seems that it speaks to the climate of your classroom to some degree. I will say that since I was the one submitting the grade, if I felt it to be way out of line, I had the authority to adjust it, I just never did.  

So even if you live somewhere that is obsessed with testing, maybe you could begin with an assignment or two. Wouldn't the ultimate goal be that every student would grade and assess themselves? How are we moving toward that goal? Once again, we should stop using phrases like "life long learning" if we're not going to empower our students to think, learn and assess for themselves.