David Gooblar

Columnist at Chronicle Vitae

How, and Why, You Should Have Students Assess Themselves

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As the end of another semester approaches, a teacher’s mind naturally turns to evaluations. This term, in addition to having students fill out the standard forms about your course, why not ask them to evaluate themselves as well?

There are many reasons to have students complete self-evaluations at semester’s end, but perhaps the best is that the exercise encourages metacognition. I’ve written before about metacognition — essentially “thinking about one’s thinking” — particularly in the context of getting students to consider their approach to our courses as they progress. But metacognition is a significantly valuable tool at the end of a course, when there are so many opportunities for self-reflection. At that point, students have been working on the same subject for more than three months; before they move on to other courses, and other professors, give them time and space to reflect on what they’ve done, and how they’ve done it.

A self-evaluation is a great way to get students to assess how they approached the course with an eye to improving their learning strategies in the future. It can also help cement the particular skills they learned in your course — in effect, they remind themselves of the skills they’ve acquired, and may be more likely to put them to use in the future.

Additionally, asking students to reflect on their own practices during your course may make them better equipped to evaluate your teaching in a way that accurately reflects how much they’ve learned.

A self-evaluation can take many forms. One approach is to first explicitly talk to students about the value of metacognitive thinking. Ask them to reflect upon the learning strategies they used in the course and think deeply about their own habits of thinking. Explain that the act of reflection is itself a valuable learning strategy. With that introduction, you pave the way to ask students general questions: What strategies did they use for the course? How did they study for the tests? How did they approach the assignments? Which strategies worked well? Which ones didn’t work? The value of that kind of questioning is that it asks students to consider that which usually remains unnoticed and unquestioned. Even if their answers tend to be vague, filling out this kind of self-evaluation can go a long way toward helping students develop valuable metacognitive practices that can help their learning going forward.

Along those same lines are what Kimberly D. Tanner, a professor of biology at San Francisco State University, has called “retrospective postassessments.” Essentially, she asks students to compare where they are at the end of the course with where they were at the beginning. You can give students explicit statements to finish: “Before this course, I thought Marxism was _____. Now, I think Marxism is _____.” Alternatively, you can ask students to write about the specific ways they have changed their thinking about the topics you covered. Either way, you bring students face to face with their own learning, asking them to reflect upon the distance they’ve traveled.

Tanner’s approach is particularly effective if you ask students for their preconceptions about the course topics at the beginning of the semester, as many instructors already do. Then, as part of their self-evaluations, students can compare their current thinking with explicit evidence of their past thinking (this is worth keeping in mind for the beginning of next semester).

Perhaps you didn’t ask students to do such a “pre-assessment” at the beginning of the semester? You can still have them reckon with their past selves at the end of the course.One approach I particularly like is to ask students to revisit their first assignment, using it as the basis for self-reflection. What would they have done differently? What did they succeed at, by chance? What did they learn from the assignment that they put into practice later in the semester?

Even better, ask students to assemble a portfolio of all the work they’ve done over the semester, read it over, and write an analysis of how they’ve progressed. Some instructors may prefer this approach (to a more general one) because it keeps students focused squarely on the black and white of their demonstrable contributions to the course.

Finally, you might avoid explicitly using a self-evaluation and instead make use of an end-of-term strategy I wrote about last April: Have students write letters to future students in your course. If you pitch it right, the exercise is sneakily metacognitive. By asking students to advise other students on how to approach the class, they are forced to reflect on their own approach, and to think about what they would have done differently.

One rarely discussed benefit of metacognition is that it encourages students to take responsibility for their learning. By asking students to reflect not only on how the course has served them, but also on how they have served themselves and their classmates, self-evaluations offer a valuable corrective to the student-as-customer model that course evaluations seem to promote. All instructors know how much student performance is influenced by student effort; it’s worth letting students see this for themselves once in a while.

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