9 | A Few Words on Self-Assessment
There are three things extremely hard: steel, a diamond, and to know one’s self.
—Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard’s Improved Almanack (1750)
We have discussed many types of collaborative activities and their potential for authentic assessment, including online partnerships, team activities, and the creating of community. Does self-assessment offer a competing stance? What is its value to learning?
Fenwick and Parsons (2009) define self-assessment as “the act of identifying standards or criteria and applying them to one’s own work, and then making a judgment as to whether—or how well—you have met them” (p. 111). In their discussion of self-assessment, they point out that many learners resist engaging in self-assessment: It makes them nervous; they are uncomfortable; they don’t feel they have the skills. Dron (2007) suggests another negative outcome or perception of self-assessment when he writes that assessing one’s own work lessens the effectiveness of “communicating [one’s] success to others” (p. 102).
Self-assessment cannot occur in a vacuum; that is, well-intentioned instructors should not just throw a self-assessment activity into the mix and hope for meaningful results. From a constructivist perspective, self-assessment represents a step on the path to critical reflection and growth, to independence in learning and self-direction (Garrison & Archer, 2000). The opportunity to self-assess, properly managed, can increase the ability to reflect; the ability to interact—with self, instructor, and colleagues; the ability to think critically and diagnose both weaknesses and strengths in one’s own work; and the ability to analyze, synthesize, and of course evaluate. These are all high-level cognitive skills according to Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives (1956). This chapter first discusses some techniques and strategies for introducing self-assessment, then locates self-assessment within the online context, and finally draws on the literature to appraise the use of self-assessments.
Some Tips for Self-Assessment
As self-assessment is a facet of the constructivist approach to teaching, the assumption in this chapter is that the learning environment is constructivist-friendly: Learners are engaged with the instructor, the material, and each other in respectful and participative ways, and opportunities are provided for knowledge building and knowledge sharing (Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1987). Feedback is frequent, formative, and constructive.
In such an environment, critical thinking and reflection are prized. Among the many opportunities that learners would have to practise these skills, individually and in groups, is the chance to self-assess. Garrison and Archer (2000) see self-assessment as a chance for learners to think and write about their own work and their learning; they separate it from “the evaluation of outcomes” (p. 168), which they deem “more formal.” The issue of learners awarding themselves grades generates self-assessment’s underlying contentiousness, and it echoes, conceptually, Dron’s concern about the value of the grade awarded: It depends on who gives it. Similarly, Garrison and Archer suggest that the use of self-assessment—and peer assessment—be approached with caution. They also warn that neither should replace the use of more formal evaluations, conducted by the instructor.
Nevertheless, self-assessment can still serve as a useful learning strategy. Fenwick and Parsons (2009) list these ways to introduce and encourage self-assessment:
- Be aware of learners’ sense of power dynamics in the teaching-learning or institution-learning relationship and of the tendency for possible initial reluctance or fear when asked to self-assess.
- Ensure that your plan for self-assessment has a legitimate and logical place within your overall assessment plan.
- Inform the learners of the self-assessment intent, strategy, rationale, and general plan.
- Create and provide clear guidelines and criteria for the self-assessment activity.
- Work collaboratively with learners and help them to work collaboratively with each other, to develop appropriate skills for the tasks.
- Be present to give feedback and support.
- Provide opportunities for debriefing and processing of the development and implementation process. (pp. 113–115)
The Features of Online Self-Assessment
Using self-assessment techniques online falls well within the guidelines and initiatives for authentic assessment already discussed in previous chapters, specifically Chapter 4. These guidelines and initiatives support the notions of motivated, mature, and “deep” learning that flow from constructivist adult education principles. Additionally, online systems make “peer and self-assessment achievable anytime, anywhere” (JISC, 2010, p. 43).
The engagement of learners in self-assessment tasks does not differ from learners’ engagement in other online tasks: They are able to complete the task in their own space and, within the confines of the course plan, at their own pace and time. The time-frame assigned to self-assessment activities should reflect a critical-thinking type of task; in other words, it should not be a timed quiz.
Reflective exercises such as logs, diaries, or journals can serve as self-assessment activities in that they encourage learners to assess how well they’ve met the assessment criteria in other, more traditional tasks such as essays and presentations. The University of Reading, in the United Kingdom, also suggests that “audits or essay feedback questionnaires that students complete on submitting a piece of coursework are particularly helpful as [instructors] can compare [their] perception of their work with students’ views on how well they have performed” (n.d.).
To fully realize the potential of self-assessment, as it is understood by educators such as Garrison and Archer (2000) and Dron (2007), it is essential for learners to be given the opportunity to debrief the exercise. Opportunities such as this, provided to assist learners in self-reflection and critical thinking, require reporting and discussion on the processes undertaken. Some of the questions that could be raised in this regard are: What did you learn about your own learning? What sense did you make of the course structure/rationale/assessment plan? How and where can you apply this learning and these skills? What sense do you make of others’ interpretations?7
Debriefing, online, can take several shapes. It can occur effectively in small-group arrangements, perhaps more effectively in a small group than in a larger group, considering issues of safety and trust. (See group work discussion in Chapter 5.) It can materialize in written documents that are posted online in large or small forums. A debrief could also be submitted in written format to the instructor for his or her formative or summative review. A synchronous debrief could be held if the group is not too large, as synchronicity can begin to lose its shape and effectiveness when there are too many contributors, especially if the exchange is not well facilitated.
Critiques of Self-Assessment
The educators cited above have all attached caveats to the use of self-assessment in academic work. A much more critical assessment was levelled by Dunning, Heath, and Suls (2004) following the results of a psychological study. Investigating self-assessment in the fields of education, health, and the workplace, they concluded:
Research in education finds that students’ assessments of their performance tend to agree only moderately with those of their teachers and mentors. Students seem largely unable to assess how well or poorly they have comprehended material they have just read. They also tend to be over confident in newly learned skills, at times because the common educational practice of massed training appears to promote rapid acquisition of skill—as well as self-confidence—but not necessarily the retention of skill. (p. 69)
As a part of their empirical studies, Dunning, Heath, and Suls (2004) noted that “complete strangers armed only with scant information about an individual can predict that person’s skills and abilities almost as well as he or she can, despite the fact that the individual has a lifetime of self-information to draw upon” (p. 71). The authors supported their conclusions with data that provide a critical appraisal of the human condition. Their conclusions have also been posited by other writers on psychological matters such as Snyder (1987), who investigated self-monitoring behaviours in individuals, noting that we regulate and control the ways in which we present ourselves to others in social and interpersonal situations. Snyder’s work reflects Goffman’s (1959) seminal work on identity; Bandura’s (1986, 1971) work on social ambience and the effect of the medium on who we feel we are; and, later, is echoed by Turkle’s (1997) and Wenger’s (1998) work on technology, community, and identity. Simply put, it’s difficult for individuals to know who they are and difficult to present themselves to others, in the style of Lewis Carroll’s Alice when she confessed to the Caterpillar that she was not quite herself (Jones, 2005).
Dunning, Heath, and Suls (2004) pointed out that their study was not exhaustive, and they also clarified that, while still considered imperfect, self-assessments could be more reliable in some circumstances than in others. Their suggestions for “good” self-assessment resonate with those documented above: Ensure clear guidelines and criteria and locate the occasions for self-assessment in an appropriate learning environment that supports the underlying purposes and pedagogy of self-assessment. They also noted that “correlations between grades that students gave themselves and teachers’ grades were higher in advanced classes than in introductory courses” (p. 85).
The arguments above highlight several themes: (a) Self-assessment, when conducted appropriately and within a sound context, can assist learners’ critical reflection and thinking skills, thus making them more successful and accomplished learners; (b) self-assessment has complex, inherent weaknesses that often spring from our innate humanness; (c) self-assessment should, in most cases, not be used as evaluative tools. That said, online technology and the constructivist paradigm lend themselves well to self-assessment vehicles and can support self-assessment in either group or individual settings.
7 Argyris (1990) and Schön (1983) used the “Ladders of Inference” concept to help people make sense of the perceptions, interpretations, and opinions of others. This technique is also used in organizational development to enhance decision making, balance, and community.