At T. Baldwin Demarest Elementary School in Old Tappan, New Jersey, we’re in the middle of a two-year process of implementing Writing Pathways across all grade levels. More or less, Writing Pathways is an assessment system that works hand-in-hand with the Writing Workshop framework, and the system will help us to better align our writing instruction, horizontally and vertically.
In addition, whenever we’re dealing with assessment, student self-assessment should be our endgame for the purpose of students owning the learning as much as possible.
…the greatest effects on student learning occur when teachers become learners of their own teaching, and when students become their own teachers. When students become their own teachers, they exhibit the self-regulatory attributes that seem most desirable for learners (self-monitoring, self-evaluation, self-assessment, self-teaching). Thus, it is visible teaching and learning by teachers and students that makes the difference.
That being said, taking into consideration Writing Pathways and my work with project based learning, here are what I believe are the four keys to student self-assessment.
1. Learning Targets
Rick Stiggins, assessment and grading expert, tells us, “Students can hit any target that they know about and that stands still for them.” In other words, during the learning process, students should know what they are trying to achieve, which can be communicated in the form of learning targets.
Standards are not the same as learning targets; think of learning targets as user-friendly standards. Here are three tips to consider when converting standards to learning targets:
- If a standard contains multiple independent actions (e.g., I can identify a dog and a cat.), split it up into multiple learning targets (e.g., I can identify a dog. I can identify a cat.).
- Make sure all learning targets are in student-friendly language, because we ultimately want students to be able to leverage these targets to drive their own learning through self-assessment (assessment as learning).
- To promote inquiry, present each learning target in the form of a question (“Can I…?” instead of “I can…”). Then, feel free to call them inquiry targets instead of learning targets.
Students should be able to physically see the learning targets they’re trying to hit. For a lesson, the target(s) can be written on the board, the teacher can hang up a poster that contains the target(s), students can write the target(s) in their journals, etc. If we’re taking more of a unit-based approach (e.g., project based learning), I recommend distributing a handout containing the main targets students will need to hit throughout the unit. As students work through the unit, their handouts should be out at all times or whenever possible (more on this handout later on).
To encourage inquiry when working with learning targets, divulge the target at the right time. Revealing the target too early can be comparable to a comedian supplying the punchline to a joke before starting the joke itself; it ruins the suspense. For example, if I’m going to teach kindergarteners how to add, I wouldn’t start by saying, “Today, we’re going to learn how to add!” Instead, without even using the term “addition,” I’d have students group together manipulatives, then drawings, and finally, numbers. At this point we’d attach the term “addition” to what students are doing, and I’d let them know what they have to achieve.
2. Success Criteria
If we want students to hit their targets, they have to know what it looks like when this hitting happens. In other words, for each learning target, students need to be aware of its success criteria. Here are three learning targets along with their success criteria:
- Learning Target 1: Can I identify who is telling the story at various points in a text?
- Success Criteria 1: As I read, I can tell you who the narrator is, and I can support my answer(s) with evidence from the text.
- Learning Target 2: Can I compare two fractions with different numerators and different denominators?
- Success Criteria 2: When given two fractions with different numerators and different denominators, I can tell you which one is bigger or if they’re equal. I can justify my answer using numbers, words, drawings, and/or manipulatives.
- Learning Target 3: Can I apply knowledge of basic electrical circuits to the design and construction of simple direct current circuits?
- Success Criteria 3: I can engineer a circuit containing a closed path, which connects a light bulb to a battery. The circuit contains a switch that can be easily activated.
As learning targets are made visible to students, we should consider accompanying each target with its success criteria. For lessons, I’ve always preferred to orally communicate success criteria; because the learning is more short-term, it’s easier for students to keep track of what they have to do. (And, day after day, recording each and every success criteria can get a bit cumbersome.) For units, success criteria can go on the same handout as the learning targets. Think of your handout as a table containing three columns. Column 1 is the list of learning targets. Column 2 is the list of success criteria, with each learning target’s success criteria recorded to its right. Column 3 contains feedback (which we’ll cover in the next section).
Optionally, to better own their learning, students can work with the teacher to construct success criteria (as opposed to it simply being given to them). As a teacher, I often accomplished this through the analysis of exemplars (e.g., students analyzing various narrative essay introductions in order to determine its quality features). By the time students are done analyzing exemplars they are so entrenched in what quality work looks like making it their own is that much easier.
In general, feedback tells a student three things:
- Where he/she is: the student’s current abilities
- Where he/she needs to go: the student’s current abilities in relation to success criteria and hitting the learning target(s) for which he/she is striving
- How to get there: what the student needs to do to achieve success criteria and hit the target(s)
If a student doesn’t know what he/she is supposed to achieve, then the feedback (if you can call it that) is faulty. Feedback must be given in relation to something – in this case, success criteria and learning targets. In other words, if you’re trying to help me, but I don’t what I’m trying to accomplish, the help is no good.
In a learning space, feedback generally takes on three forms: teacher-to-student, student-to-student, and student-to-self. While all of these are likely to occur at one point or another, to promote student agency we should mostly be aiming for student-to-self. But, because the majority of students aren’t naturally adept at self-assessment, we need to create the conditions for this type of feedback to be the norm.
Here are two ways to make this happen through modeling:
- Explicit modeling: This technique is typically done as an entire class or in small group, and it involves the teacher and students working together to assess a piece of work. (Ideally, this work should be student work, in progress.) The teacher and students assess the work by working their way through the learning targets, one at a time. For each target they discuss the feedback that should be given.
- Gradual release: Instead of starting with student-to-self, start with teacher-to-student. Then, over time, filter in more and more student-to-student, followed by more and more student-to-self. This way, students are prepared for student-to-self by first learning how to give feedback from both their teacher and their peers.
Once again, for units, I recommend using a three column handout: left, learning targets to be assessed; middle, each target’s success criteria (or strengths); right, where feedback is provided in relation to each target. Here’s what this can look like.
As previously stated, whether it’s during a lesson or a unit, students should be able to physically see the learning targets they’re trying to hit. This way, as they do their work, they can get into the habit of (1) assessing their progress in relation to the target(s), and then (2) deciding and acting upon what needs to be done in order to hit the target(s). Of course, we want students would be able to take both of these steps on their own. However, just because students can see the targets doesn’t mean they’re actually using them. And, no matter the class, students’ abilities will vary when it comes to self-assessing and adjusting appropriately.
Along with modeling, we also need to set aside class time for student self-assessment (outside of what regularly takes place when students work with their learning targets in front of them). This time is dedicated to students practicing and applying self-assessment without the pressures of having to simultaneously move forward with their work.
Here are three different ways this time could be spent:
- Lesson: Students are in the middle of a lesson on comparing fractions with different numerators and different denominators. Before the students split off into centers, the teacher calls their attention to the lesson’s learning target and success criteria. Students, individually, are given ten minutes to try to hit the target. After the ten minutes, centers are differentiated based on who has/hasn’t been successful.
- Unit: Two weeks into an informational writing unit, each student is asked to (1) select 2-3 learning targets that stand out as areas for improvement, (2) look at his/her current writing and give written self-feedback for each target, and then (3) for each target, use its success criteria to create a written improvement plan. About forty minutes is set aside for this work. (This is just one example of student goal setting, which can take on many forms.)
- Reflection: We can also get our students into the habit of self-assessment and reflection by giving them prompts (which don’t necessarily have to connect to learning targets). Here are a few examples from Embedded Formative Assessment by Dylan Wiliam:
- Today I learned…
- I was interested in…
- One thing I’m not sure about is…
- I might have gotten more from this lesson if…
Because the final example has more of a non-evaluative “feel” (especially when the prompts don’t connect to learning targets), it can be used as a non-threatening entry point for students who aren’t used to talking about their own work.
In the End
Student learning is often categorized into their abilities to know (facts), understand (concepts), and be able to do (skills). Regarding knowledge of facts, student self-assessment has been commonplace for years through such techniques as flashcards and rote memorization (for better or for worse).
However, considering current technologies, facts are ubiquitous. Facts are free. And, if facts are all we are teaching, we should ask ourselves why we’re doing what we’re doing. As Tony Wagner announces in his TEDx Talk, “What the world cares about is not what you know, but what you can do with what you know.”
Deeper understanding of concepts and skills should serve as the basis for our work. And, ideally, students should be able to self-assess throughout pretty much all aspects of this learning. While it’s easy to proclaim, “The students I have couldn’t do this!” based on my experiences, with some intentionality, even kindergarteners can make it happen.
How do you promote student self-assessment?
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