The power of self-assessment

Self-assessment is an amazingly powerful learning tool, as I was just reminded when going over a writing assignment with my fourth grade son. Self-assessment means that the student uses a detailed rubric to grade his own work - a process you can apply to any subject and at any stage in the learning process.

In our case, we sat down with his recently completed essay and a student-friendly rubric on report writing developed by our school back home (we are currently home schooling while sailing the Pacific aboard our 35 foot sloop). The rubric has several columns, one for each aspect of writing: ideas and content, word choice, conventions, organization, sentence fluency, and voice. A student can earn up to 5 points on each section.

We started by looking at his essay in terms of word choice, and my son had to consider whether he qualified for:

5 points: Extremely clear, visual, and accurate. My words are colorful, snappy, vital, and fresh. Look at all my energetic verbs! Some of the words and phrases are so vivid, the reader won’t soon forget them.

3 points: Correct but not striking. I used everyday words pretty well but I didn’t stretch for a new and better way to say things. My words aren’t very specific. I used old cliches.

1 point: Confusing. A lot of words or phrases were vague. My words don’t make pictures yet. Over and over, I used the same words over and over.

It’s amazing to watch your own child sit down with his own work and decide what he earned as a grade. I had him write a comment for why he awarded himself each grade before moving on to the next criteria (“I gave myself a four because I had some energetic verbs and good words, but I also had a few vague parts. To get a five, I’d need to use more good vocabularly.”)

The point of the exercise is to have the student examine their own work with a critical eye. This cements everything in the student’s mind: What makes a good essay? What did I do well? What should I watch out for? The next time he wrote an essay, I had him go back and check his grading notes from the previous exercise before polishing off his final draft. The effect was clear and immediate, the writing better.

Self-assessment is much more powerful than having a teacher or parent simply say, “You get a 4 out of 5.” The student has to dissect her own work and give an honest appraisal of its strengths and weaknesses. It’s learning about learning - and learning about yourself - at its best!

Students who haven’t had much exposure to self-assessment will need some guidance at first, but they quickly catch on. Many of the middle and high school students I taught enjoy the process and take a lot away from it. Obviously, you need a very clear and specific rubric to work from. To be fair, the student should also be able to see the rubric before they complete an assignment - otherwise, they won’t know what they will be graded on. That’s the subject of my next post. Stay tuned!

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