Self-assessment helps learners actively control their own learning process, and as such is an important step on the way to greater autonomy. What needs to be done to ensure that this step is successful? What forms of self-assessment exist? And how does self-assessment influence the role of the teacher?
When learners assess themselves, they take on tasks that teachers generally regard as one of their own core competencies. As a rule, learners expect to be corrected and to receive feedback about their performance. Learning is not a passive process, however. It is not a question of simply being presented with knowledge and learning it one-to-one: learners must actively tap into this knowledge and make it their own. Regardless of whether they attend lessons in a classroom or not, it is therefore important for all learners to be able to control their learning efforts themselves to a certain extent. To do this, they must know whether they have reached their goals. These goals can be defined externally – in an exercise, course or examination – or can be set by learners for themselves.
Clear criteria useful for self-assessment
Self-assessment helps learners identify their strengths and weakness and adjust their own learning patterns accordingly. Can-do lists of the kind used for example in the checklists of the European Language Portfolio
allow learners to assess their language level themselves. The descriptions of what the learner can already do, categorized according to different types of skills, can highlight for example the fact that a learner has already reached a higher level in reading than in other areas.
Many textbooks have adopted this principle and provide a list of can-do statements at the end of each chapter, based on the learning goals to be achieved in that particular chapter. Learners put ticks against the statements to indicate what they can already do well, what they plan to improve, and where they require help.
Assessment criteria can also be defined for individual tasks, however – for example for a presentation, a poster or a text. The two-fold advantage of such criteria becomes clear when preparing examinations, for example. If learners are familiar with the criteria for a particular writing exercise, they can independently practise those aspects that they have not yet mastered so well. During the examination itself, when learners are of course unable to request help from the teacher, the criteria serve as a control mechanism by ensuring for example that learners pay attention to specific errors or formulations.
However, it is often the case that such criteria are not immediately comprehensible, so it is the job of the teacher to use examples, specimen texts or solutions to make it clear how the criteria can be applied. This helps learners recognize what is important, and increases the quality and accuracy of their own assessment.
However, predefined criteria can also be restrictive if they do not cover those aspects that happen to be important for the individual learner at a particular time. Learners will be able to formulate criteria for themselves once they know what to assess and how. Language teaching researcher Karin Kleppin therefore proposes self-assessment on the meta level
as a preliminary step. Learners are given a number of criteria relating to a particular task. First they simply enter a tick to indicate whether they believe that they are able to assess a particular criterion themselves. Following this individual learner self-assessment, the learning group discusses whether and how a certain criterion can be assessed by the learners themselves. “At the end, I checked my text for the kind of errors I typically make” is a far more concrete criterion than “I made no errors” because it gives an instruction and gives consideration to individual problems.
Conventional self-assessment tool: a note | Foto: © Willing-Holtz – plainpicture
Making individual learner progress visible
One important role played by self-assessment is that it makes learners aware of their individual progress. In groups with very mixed ability levels, it can help learners maintain their own motivation if they are able to see their own progress. The same applies to learners at higher levels, who often find it less and less easy to detect any progress. The following are examples of just some of the many ways in which this can be done:
- Learners regularly spend just a few minutes writing short texts on topics that they find easy. At the end of the exercise, each learner counts the number of words they have written, and enters the number in a simple chart. Over a number of days or weeks, it becomes obvious that the writing process is increasingly fluent and that learners are more quickly able to find the right words. Other assessment methods can also be used from time to time to check other aspects, for instance that the texts are correct and make sense.
- An exercise that learners had difficulty with some time ago is tackled again. Upon completion, learners compare how they performed previously and now, and make a note of two or three points that went better this time around than in the first attempt.
- Learners make a portfolio of their learning products, e.g. e-mails, summaries, sample dialogues or audio recordings produced during lessons, and look at how these products represent their learning progress.
Self-assessment has an impact on teaching
When learners are supposed to assess within a lesson framework what they can do well and not so well, they have a right to expect that their individual needs will be taken into consideration to the greatest extent possible. This may mean for example that they receive individual tips, or at least tips tailored to specific needs, or that they are given a range of different choices for certain activities. Developed for immigrant integration purposes for levels up to B1, the scenario-based Fide
teaching concept shows how the needs of participants can be taken into consideration with the aid of portfolio work and self-assessment.
Because learners need to understand the assessment criteria if they are to assess themselves, self-assessment creates greater transparency. It also makes it easier for learners to understand the assessments of their teacher. Furthermore, learning goals can be reached more easily if they are broken down into individual components by criteria. This makes it possible to plan learning success and increases motivation.
Last but not least, self-assessment is also a good way to prepare for the time after completing school or the course. Learners who are capable of monitoring their learning progress with methods they have chosen themselves, and of adapting their learning processes wherever this may be necessary, will be well prepared for lifelong learning.
Self-assessment is supposed to complement rather than replace assessment by teachers or external tests. This is the principle followed by the Dialang
level assessment test, which combines self-assessment with test questions. It is important for learners to receive external feedback and confirmation, as this – in conjunction with self-assessment – gives rise to a balanced picture. On this basis, teachers and learners can jointly define appropriate goals and learning paths.