December 10th, 2014

Developing Students’ Self-Assessment Skills


I’ve been rereading some of the research on student self-assessment and thinking about how students develop these skills. They are important in college, all but essential in most professions, but they’re rarely taught explicitly. We assume (or hope) they’re the kind of skills student can pick up on their own, even though most of us see evidence to the contrary. Many students, especially beginning ones, routinely overestimate their ability and underestimate the difficulty of course content. How often did I hear this comment about my courses: “A communication course? Gotta be a piece of cake. I’ve been talking since I was 3.”

The research corroborates what we see in our classes. David Boud, who’s made student self-assessment a major focus of his career, co-authored a now classic review of research which found that student estimations of their grades were routinely higher than the assessments of their teachers. Part of that may be wishful thinking—students reporting the grade they’d like or hope to have.

But self-assessment, as it’s written about by the experts, doesn’t replace teacher grades with ones provided by students. This is formative self-assessment—the ability to look at your work and know (or have a pretty good sense) of what’s good and what needs to be improved. It’s the ability to critique how you did something, the ability to learn from your mistakes, to use more of what works and less of what didn’t the next time. It’s a two-pronged assessment, an interrogation of what you produce (your work) and how well you completed it (your performance).

The research in this area is significant with many findings well established. Self-assessment ability correlates with achievement in an interesting albeit convoluted way. High achieving students tend to under-estimate their performance and those in low-achieving cohorts over estimate theirs. Low achieving students also have more difficulty learning to make accurate self-assessments.

Boud and various colleagues point out that it’s a complex skill that confronts the learner with challenging data. So, for example, a student reports the grade he thinks he’s earned on a paper, or using a criteria he rates his contributions to a group project. Students are more honest if they know the instructor giving the grade isn’t going to see their self-assessment. Then the student considers both assessments, his own and the teacher’s, and reflects on why they aren’t the same. For skill development to start, students have to reconsider the reasons they used to justify that self-assessment. What’s wrong with those reasons? What did the teacher see in their work or performance that they missed? What’s involved is the ability to make judgments, which Boud (and colleagues) point out is not developed after one or two such exercises. Accurate self-assessment requires multiple opportunities to practice within courses and across them. Because the most important goal isn’t agreement between teacher and student assessments. The ultimate goal is for students to make accurate judgments on their own.

I fear we are not doing as much as we should to develop this skill. Yes, we already have a thousand and one things we need to be doing with students. So, we use what time we can take, first, to make students aware of the usefulness, indeed necessity, of the skill. Then we can provide efficient self-assessment opportunities, such as group members rating their contributions in specified categories, getting rated by the rest of the group, and then seeing a comparison of those ratings. We can also ask pointed questions: “Given where you’re headed professionally, what communications skills do you need that you don’t yet have?” We could also be looking at the curricula in our programs, and asking as a department if self-assessment skills are being developed to the extent they should and if not, where and when are they best taught.

References (to the classic review of research and to a more recent study, which is highlighted in the December issue of The Teaching Professor):

Falchikov, N., and Boud, D. “Student Self-Assessment in Higher Education: A Meta-Analysis.” Review of Educational Research, 1989, 59 (4), 395-430.

Boud, D., Lawson, R., and Thompson, D. “Does Student Engagement in Self-Assessment Calibrate Their Judgement Over Time?” Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 2013, 38 (3), 941-956.

  • docpipnz

    I think you have commented on an important area here, Maryellen. You may be interested in a booklet produced by my ex-colleague Dorothy Spiller at the University of Waikato. It reinforces the points you are making, and gives some useful additional material. See

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  • Carolyn Hastie

    Thank you for this interesting article Maryellen. We are providing self and peer assessment opportunities for students in every year of our course. We are teaching and assessing teamwork skills; our goal is to help students learn the teamwork skills which enable them to function optimally and survive in the contemporary health work force as well as meet the Uni graduate attribute and professional standards expected. We've tied the self and peer assessment process to their teamwork experience. I really appreciate the Uni of Waikato document shared by docpipnz too, thank you for that.

  • Elizabeth kelly

    Thank you Martellen for supporting my classroom learning approach that emphasizes the strengths students brings to a college classroom.

  • Matt Birkenhauer

    Yes, self-assessment (which is another word for metacognition) is important, but I think it needs to be designed in such a way that it is interwoven into every facet of a course, especially those courses designed for first-year students, whose "metacognitive savvy" is often not quite as developed as they might think. (Their executive function, related to metacognitive savvy, is also not as developed as they think; their brains are still growing well into their early twenties.)

    Some students come to college with what I call a strong sense of metacognitive savvy; maybe that's partly why they were ahead of their peers in high school, too. I often wonder (but have no research to back this up, just a hunch based on thirty years of teaching at all levels, including high school), if metacognitive savvy feeds into the kinds of standardized test scores and GPA often used to place students into classes in college, but that’s another matter altogether.

    What we need to be doing, especially those of us who teach primarily first-year students, is to help them, as one of my colleagues likes to say, “Make thinking visible,” which is another way of saying, help them develop the metacognitive savvy that they all have latent within them

    • Ken Mellendorf

      Standardized testing does have an effect. Many students I've talked with tell me that they were instructed how to do better on the standardized tests. They were also given the impression that score on the standardized test is the parameter that indicates how good you are at the corresponding subjects. For the public, digital scores are the preferred method for evaluation. This doesn't really work for a thorough self-assessment, but many expect it to be so.

  • Arlene Corrigan

    Your article highlights the need to teach students how to monitor their learning. I agree with Mark(see earlier comment) that these metacognitive skills or awareness skills need to be taught explicitly and modelled in daily classroom activities.n one self assessment that I like to use is a self assessment of a reflection. In a one hour class I will have two or more short reflections or opportunities to pause and do something with the content they have just been given. After such a reflection I will ask them to assess their own reflection so that they learn to reflect effectively and make adjustments. I learned this technique in an online course from Stanford U with Jo Boaler. She used a type of 'binary' self assessment. Example, Give yourself a '1' if you answered…..; Give yourself a '0' if you did not….
    This is one way we can teach self assessment and metacognitive skills.

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