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One of my favorite creative writing teachers in college introduced me to the iceberg theory of character design. I’m sure many of you likely know it, but, if not, here is a quick primer:

The basic idea is that 90% of the mass of an iceberg sits below the waterline, and much like the secretive iceberg, the theory argues that when an author creates a character, she should only show a fraction of what she creates on the page. The logic is that the hidden, unseen depths will help the characters to feel more authentic and complete because, just like with the people around us, there will be much to deduce and infer.

I’ve always loved this lesson because I’ve found it to be so true, and not just when it comes to crafting characters. The world around us is awash with icebergs. Nearly everything we see, buy, consume, and do has so much more beneath the surface than can be seen above water.

As someone who writes regularly about his own practice as an educator, I’ve also come to find that my teaching is a land of icebergs too. So much of what I do and assign goes so much deeper than what can be seen on the surface–often to depths I didn’t realize until I sat to examine them in writing.

And of the icebergs in my practice, I’ve found few that go down further than student-self assessment, which is a suggestion that has been around for a long time and yet it is still relatively rare in practice, even in classes that otherwise put lots of emphasis on student voice and autonomy. In today’s post, I want to explore its depths and why if you make one change this year in particular, increasing the amount of student self-assessment should maybe be it.


The Case for More Student Self-Assessment

I encountered the concept of student self-assessment early in my career, but for many years I dismissed it for the following reasons:

  • When it comes to assessment, it is pretty apparent that the teacher–as the expert, neutral party, and one with the most experience–is likely in the best position to accurately assess the student.
  • Having students “assess” their work, only to have the teacher turn around and change the assessment if the teacher doesn’t agree, can feel more like an act of disingenuous theater meant to create buy-in than a true act of valuing student voice.
  • Given how often teacher expertise is dismissed, the insinuation that students could assess themselves as accurately as I could, felt less like a good policy and more like another slight.

Looking at these reasons now, I still see a lot of truth in them. Teachers probably are in the best position most of the time to accurately assess student skills, student self-assessment that is instantly changed when a teacher doesn’t agree is probably going to come across as disingenuous and pointless to students, and the suggestion that others (often it is computers) can better assess our students is still often trotted out in a way that feels like a subtle insult against teachers. Even still, I have come to the conclusion that one of the biggest thing our students need this fall after 18 months of pandemic teaching is to engage in lots of meaningful self-assessment. Here is why:

Student Self-Assessment Is One of the Most Empowering Teaching Tools We Have

As I said above, I used to think that student self-assessment was adults pretending to value student input, when in reality the important decisions had already been made. And in many situations, when it is poorly used, that is indeed the case.

But when we trust and train students (more on these later), student self-assessment is actually one of the most empowering things we can do as a teacher. This is because assessment is generally one of the least empowering things we do in school. In most situations, students turn in a paper and project and then wait for the grade that comes down from on high. Few, if any, other classroom moments reinforce whose class this ultimately is.

How disempowering that model of assessment can be is maybe best seen in how little understanding students often have concerning the criteria of even the biggest assignments. For many years it was not uncommon for my students to readily admit they never really looked at my rubrics or for their work to readily admit this for them. Looking back on it, there is a certain sense to this too. If assessment is only up to the teacher, one can see why students might not invest a lot of mental time and energy into it.

But when students play a significant role in assessment, that type of minimal level of understanding isn’t an option because the students need to understand the criteria to offer an accurate assessment. Further, if we ask students to explain their assessments (more on that later too), we are also asking them to engage in meaningful metacognitive reflection, after which better and faster learning tends to follow.

Student Self-Assessment Is One of the Most Powerful Time-Saving Tools We Have

To understand what makes student self-assessment not only a powerful time-saving tool, but one that actually improves instruction at the same time, we first need to remember that feedback given in the formative stages of writing (while it is still being drafted) is generally and dramatically more effective than summative (after a piece is complete) feedback. This is because feedback during the process acts as a map that guides students forward; feedback at the end (or weeks after the end) acts as a post-mortem concerning what the student could have done if they’d had the information earlier.

I get to talk to a lot of teachers about how we respond to student writing, and I’ve found that the vast majority of teachers understand this. Where the trouble lies is that between formative feedback and summative grades/responses, only one is required by 99% of teacher contracts (hint, it is the summative). And to score a student paper and discuss those scores, even if it only takes 5 minutes per paper, requires an investment of nearly 14 hours when taken on the scale of the 165 students I had last semester. This leaves little time for meaningful formative feedback, even if I know it is better.

When I first learned about how much more powerful formative feedback is than summative, I first tried to limit the time I spent with summative papers by returning them entirely blank with the exception the score. This no-final-comments approach did save me a lot of time, but it also felt cold, detached, and authoritative in a way that contrasted with my Interested Reader approach. Before long, the aloofness of these blank papers meant that I couldn’t help but to cheat my own system by leaving little comments here and there that discussed and justified my grades. The amount of these little “cheats” increased with each round of papers and by the semester’s end my summative comments (and the time it took to give them) had swelled to its normal length again.

In the end, the answer to what at the time seemed like a no-win dilemma between sacrificing a dozen or more hours discussing and contextualizing the scores I was required to give and returning scored papers in a way that felt aloof and disinterested was by leaning into meaningful student-self assessment.

When students self-assess, the responsibility of contextualizing their scores falls on them, not us. This is convenient because they are the ones who need that information the most and because at that point we simply need to sign-off on their explanations, allowing us a lot more time to invest into formative feedback.

Student Self-Assessment Is Our Best Defense Against Grading Harm

I can still remember writing a paper in 7th grade that I was sure would receive an A. I can also recall the B that met me upon its return and how that one grade stopped my up-to-that-point regular writing habit in its tracks for many years. This sort of experience, where one grade will change a student’s trajectory or a piece of their identity, is horrifyingly common, and I suspect many of you can recall similar experiences in your own education, if not your own classrooms.

When students assess first though, the teacher gets a window into how the students view themselves. This window can help teachers to carefully calibrate their responses to minimize the harm that regardless of the assessment model, can and regularly does follow grading/scoring.


How to Engage in Meaningful Student Self-Assessment

When I talk about these advantages, two of the three (more on the third in a moment) biggest questions I get are generally the following:

  1. Given that assessments are serious–and in many cases our very jobs depend on them–how do we give students meaningful say while making sure that their assessments are in line with our assessments?
  2. How can we get students to seriously engage in the process–as opposed to just give themselves As or 4s or whatever the top of your scoring system is?

The answer to both is similar to the answer for how to do peer response or self-editing well: Students are generally remarkably good at and thoughtful about assessing their own skills and knowledge, but only if they have the proper tools and training.

This is why I now do the following before students do any assessment at all:

  1. As a class, we discuss why self-assessment is important, and I share with them the same reasons I give above. We also discuss what success looks like (here is a great blog post from Sarah Zerwin describing her early attempts to discuss what success looks like in her classes) and I allow students to ask questions about and even push back against how we will be doing it in class.
  2. Students do a number of activities designed to help them to understand the criteria of each piece and gain the vocabulary of and confidence needed for self-assessment. We co-construct student-friendly rubrics from our district ones, engage in peer response, and read lots and lots of mentor texts.
  3. When it comes time for the self-assessment, I am very clear regarding how I want them to do it. Here are the questions I generally use:

What Can Be Done About Disagreements?

The other big question I get when I talk about student self-assessment is what to do when there is a disagreement concerning a score. Given the wide range of parties that will be viewing and using the grades that I am required to give, I do feel that is important that I agree with student scores. And while the vast majority of assessments from well-trained students nearly identically match my own assessment, there are rare times where a student’s assessment differs from my own. In those moments, here is what I do:

  • In moments of minor disagreement I try to hear what the student is saying. I find that if I try to hear what they have to say, they often say something that is worth hearing, and at times their assessments can even shift my initial thoughts, which feels ok to me.
  • Sometimes I will change scores in minor ways, especially if there is a teachable moment or I can nudge students to see a strength they didn’t know they had. When I do very minor changes, I generally use an audio program like Mote to briefly explain myself, as it is both faster than writing and I find the human voice helps to continue the idea that assessment in my class is part of a wider conversation, not an edict delivered from on high.
  • In moments of more significant disagreement (and generally in the very rare situation that a student’s assessment is much higher than mine would be; most students once trained tend to be harder on themselves than I would be), I strive to have a conversation with students before putting any scores down. These conversations tend to work best when I hear the student out first with an open mind before expressing my own viewpoint. The almost universal outcome for these conversations though is that instead of a student getting high scores that I don’t fully agree with or me giving them low scores that they don’t agree with, we come up with a plan to revise the piece so the scores match the ones they desire. This brings me to my last point, which is that…
  • Students can always revise a paper for higher scores in my classes. In terms of these optional revisions, I would offer them even if I didn’t have students self-assess because it doesn’t slam the door on learning and makes risks easier to take. Still, when it comes to student self-assessment, the option to revise makes the assessments less high-stakes and therefore lowers the incentive for students to inflate their scores. The revisions also add almost nothing to my paper load because revision history enables me to see all changes a student made, and the students will be the ones doing the re-assessment, meaning all I have to do is sign off on new scores, which usually takes no more than a manner of seconds.


The title of this post argues that, if you don’t already, this is the year to start using meaningful self-assessment. I have been saying this to every group of teachers I’ve spoken to this summer, and when I boil it down, there are three reasons I’ve been so vocal about this topic. First, it is worth noting that on John Hattie’s massive list of factors that accelerate student learning, meaningful student self-assessment is at the very top (due in large part to the advantages above) and a great many students will need acceleration this year like never before. The second is that millions of students will be entering buildings for the first time in a very long time and anything we can do to empower them and better understand how they are doing is probably worth our effort. The third reason, and most crucial for my approach this fall, is that when teachers no longer have to spend hundreds of hours over the year justifying our scores, we can reclaim that as essential teaching space, and in it we can do those small but mighty things that we don’t always have time to do otherwise: check-in with students regularly as they are drafting in the pursuit of developing a meaningful partnership, celebrate students and student growth once they finish a piece, and generally keep up a dialogue where we cultivate both students’ beliefs in the value of the class and the value that they have inside themselves.

Thanks for reading, and yours in teaching,

Matt

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