3 Non-Negotiables When Teaching Students to Evaluate Their Own Learning

3 Non-Negotiables When Teaching Students to Evaluate Their Own Learning

Pinterest boasts more than 1,000 ideas about how students can self-evaluate their own learning. My Google search on the same topic offered six million results. Clearly, the resources are plentiful. But just because students can doesn’t mean they will.

How can we motivate students to want to evaluate their own learning? And how can we help them do this successfully? The first step is to reframe self-evaluation within the context of the learning environment rather than primarily as a task-oriented process.

What’s In A Word?

Students must effectively use the data available to them—especially feedback from teachers—to self-evaluate their learning. But for many educators, content providers, and policymakers, self-evaluation means self-assessment, and assessment means different things to different people.

For some, it is part of a formative assessment process that provides multiple sources of data. For others, assessment equates solely to tests or diagnostic screenings. Although the term can be interpreted differently, seldom does it invoke images of classroom environments that have the potential to help students develop effective mindsets and learning habits that they can use throughout their lives.

Perhaps it’s this confusion over the meaning of assessment that has resulted in so many teacher resources being limited to task-oriented strategies. I-can statements, self-diagnostic charts and rubrics, and clearly defined processes such as student-led conferences can be useful, but task-oriented strategies alone won’t do the trick.

Data As A Distraction

One reason task-oriented strategies aren’t successful is that students may not be up to the task. They are bombarded with multiple sources of information—from family, peers, and society—that send constant and often conflicting messages about how they should act, what they should like, and whether education should matter. In addition, their unique personal experiences determine their levels of self-confidence and trust in others. All this data can distract students from learning in the classroom.

What’s more, a student’s lack of engagement is not an all-or-nothing scenario; students who love one subject may be completely disengaged in another. If educators only rely on task-oriented approaches to students’ self-evaluation of learning, without considering the underlying environment in their schools and classrooms, they may miss opportunities to reach less-engaged students.

Help Students Help Themselves

Ultimately, students are responsible for their own learning. But the environment that educators create in schools and classrooms can greatly influence students’ ability to effectively use data to self-evaluate. Many traditional policies and procedures can create inequitable environments that discourage students—especially those who already are wary of school—from taking on the important responsibility of learning. Tradition is comfortable, and shifting away from it can be hard, but positive effects such as increased student engagement, trust, and growth mindset make the challenge worth it!

There are many things educators can do to help inspire students to evaluate their own learning, but there are three non-negotiable:

  1. Encourage realistic expectations. Transitioning to student self-evaluation of learning is a cultural and instructional shift for everyone–administrators, teachers, students and parents. Students move through stages of empowerment that range from yes–freedom! to just spoon-feed me please. And teachers fall on all ends of the diffusion of innovations theory bell curve, meaning some adopt new approaches faster than others. Administrators must balance state accountability requirements with formative instructional approaches and communicate that balance in a way that parents and the community will embrace. All of this takes support—and time. Carefully implemented policies and procedures can ensure that teachers have the time and resources they need to make student self-evaluation a success.
  2. Be patient. Teaching students to use data to self-evaluate takes more time than traditional instruction. And even meaningful data becomes meaningless if there is too much of it. U.S. instruction, especially in math and science, tends to embrace a mile-wide, inch-deep approach. Educators can prioritize and organize standards to help mediate this problem. But we must all make ourselves heard in national conversations about educational policy if teachers are to truly to reclaim their classrooms from potentially misinformed or misguided policies.
  3. Commit to equity. Equity in the classroom is critical, but beware of conformity under the guise of fairness. Elementary and secondary students filter data differently. Elementary students think in facts and want to please their teachers. Secondary students consider possibilities and aim to please their peers. Students from different cultural, racial and socioeconomic backgrounds bring their own unique understanding of learning into the classroom. Every student (and teacher) has a why—a reason behind his or her action. There can be no equity so long as rules are absolute, so look for the why.

Create a Chain of Learning

In two-plus decades of teaching children and adults, more than a few unengaged students walked through my door. I successfully engaged most of them in the joys of learning, but I could not engage all of them. No teacher can.

This simple truth leads us to the final piece in empowering students to use data to self-evaluate their learning. Over the course of their education, I estimate that K-12 students walk through the doors of approximately 40 teachers. If teachers and administrators can work together to create a continuous chain of safe learning environments, students will gradually gain the ability to use data effectively in order to self-evaluate their learning in school and throughout their lives.

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