What COVID19 Has Illuminated about the Power of Self-Evaluation to Make Assessment Meaningful

By Heidi Hayes Jacobs, Bena Kallick, and Allison Zmuda

Part Three in a Four-Part Series

Assessment needs to change as we know it. COVID19 has illuminated the necessity for this change so that our students become increasingly more self-directed and self-evaluating. A significant shift is required so that we squarely focus on giving students a seat at the evaluation table and include them in task design and development of scoring tools that will provide meaningful feedback to improve performance.

A response to remote learning created an understandable scramble for “keeping learners busy” and revealed cracks in assessment policies.

We are in danger of slipping back into what is easy to assess.

When there are too many quizzes and tests, students come to perceive assessments as a process that others, outside themselves, inflict upon them from teachers, parents, test makers and later supervisors, bosses, and administrators. Learners feel insecure trusting their own judgment about the quality of their work when others who carry more influence and power tell us what to think about ourselves.

In our previous blogpost we outlined four critical questions to be applied to curriculum decision making as we transition to school: What to cut out? What to cut back? What to consolidate? What to create? Those same questions are applicable to a discussion of assessment choices. We advocate for upgrading feedback on a range of demonstrations that are performance based, where teachers and students partner on the quality of the criteria, interact with timely feedback, commit to revision, and regular reflection on process and result.

We propose the following five commitments to frame a refreshed approach to assessments that flips from an emphasis on grading to an emphasis on meaningful feedback. After this quick sketch, we will elaborate on each to strengthen your assessment practices in service of growing more self-evaluating students.

  1. Design meaningful demonstrations of learning where students are valued partners in the design process. Students are included in shaping the design of what is being asked (content), how they are managing (process), who it is being shared with (audience), and/or evaluating the quality of the result.
  2. Invest time in co-creating rubrics as a learning tool. Learners become personally invested in a rubric when they partner with their teacher in its creation, otherwise, it’s somebody’s else’s criteria. What is more, they are on the road to quality when they grasp what quality will look like in a product or performance.
  3. Put feedback on the front burner. Feedback helps to improve the work and affirms students’ investment in the learning when anchored to the criteria as well attentive to the student’s thinking. Feedback interactions should ensure credibility, are trustworthy, and offered in the best interest of student learning.
  4. Establish a collection practice where students have ownership over the narrative of their learning. These collections are curated self-selected samples that serve as artifacts of the growth of a person’s produced work over time that details not only what they have learned but how they have learned. In short, lessons learned about my learning.
  5. Invite parents to observe learning rather than focusing on grades. In a distance learning environment, parents have new possibilities for observing how their children are experiencing learning. Recognizing the delicate balance between interfering and rescuing their children from the struggle, parents can benefit from prompts to help their children grow their capacity in self-efficacy as learners.

Exploring each Tenet to Grow Partnerships with Learners and their Families

1. Design meaningful demonstrations of learning where students are valued partners in the design process.

We propose that assessments would become more meaningful if we open up a seat at the design table to develop with learners. Bena and Allison clarify this idea with a metaphor of a tuning board (e.g., typically found in car stereos, recording studios, light boards in theater) to illustrate how to manage the partnership between teacher and students to expand opportunities about the content, process, and impact.

  • Teacher Generated: teacher designs the task for students. Students may have an opportunity to select from a small variety of topics or formats but there may be limited possibilities for students to give voice to concerns about readiness, interest, or pace of development.
  • Co-Created: Increasingly moving toward student agency, the teacher provides parameters to clarify what the demonstration must measure and works with students to design a more personalized perspective by considering the “what” (content), “how” (process), and/or “what form” (product/performance type). For example, the teacher can determine the topic, due date(s), and form, but the students are expected to pursue a line of inquiry that they find compelling in service of that topic. Another example is that the teacher can identify the form (an infographic) and the students examine a range of examples to collectively identify quality criteria to guide their work.
  • Learner Generated: student designs demonstration aligned with parameters that the teacher provides what the demonstration must measure. This is where learners progressively move to greater agency and self-direction. The teacher serves as a valuable sound board for feedback, a coach for review and guidance on next steps.

2. Invest time in co-creating rubrics as a learning tool to guide the process.

The Latin meaning of rubric comes from rubrica meaning to highlight in red. Rubrica refers to the bright red calligraphy evident in liturgical text used by monks to call attention to, that is to highlight specific passages. There is value in considering the root meaning given that rubrics are not intended just for a grade, but rather to highlight and call attention to quality in order to shed light on the choices the learner will make as they craft products and render performances.

When students work to generate a rubric with their teacher, their examination of models, discussion to clarify descriptors, and development of the language, this process increases the connection to the tool and builds clarity on what is being asked. Co-created with teachers, students study a range of professionally developed models that they admire to unpack the reasons why they work well with intended audiences. Invite students to set themselves up for producing quality by posing to our learners IN ADVANCE the question … What makes a quality persuasive essay? What makes a quality caption under a photo? What makes a quality podcast? Then, providing opportunities to examine a diverse set of models within a genre and describing, as the audience, what makes these models work. Where do they see patterns across the various examples? This leads to rubrics that are designed to span across multiple opportunities throughout the year rather than rubrics that are designed for a specific project. Students become self-evaluative.

There will be both form and function criteria when we develop quality rubrics. Form criteria will be technical in nature and function to the content and aesthetics. For example, if students are to create an original podcast on issues of importance to them, the teacher would ask members of the class to bring is a personal favorite of a professionally made podcast to unpack for quality criteria. The teacher can share one as well. As various samples of the podcasts are played, students identify and sort technical categories: editing, sound clarity, sound effects, pace, or match of length of program to message. They would do the same for the function of the piece, that is the content and purpose. These categories could include:

  • match between purpose and audience
  • level of interest generated, the emotional connection to the listener
  • factual accuracy of information that might be in the podcast
  • aesthetics of the intro and outro motifs
  • impact of the entire piece on the listener.

This process applies to our more classical forms for communication. Whether a teacher of high school English or third grade ELA is asking students to write an autobiography, it is highly likely that they will read existing examples of quality to study their quality. The autobiography rubric, too, will have both technical criteria such as mechanics, syntax, paragraph formation; and, content criteria such as engaging content, word choice, and style. In a very real sense collaborative rubric design can be a profound teaching tool that, indeed, highlights what matters most in quality demonstration of learning.

3. Put Feedback On the Front Burner

Feedback is learning. The way students reflect on, engage with, and take action on feedback is determined by a belief that the rubric describes what the student considers to be high quality work. Too often, the feedback is more about task completion or a grade than it is about learning. The real learning takes place when students become self-evaluating throughout the process of developing work. They ask themselves questions such as: Is my work clear? Will it engage the audience? How might I add some aesthetic design features? They develop the courage to not just wait for feedback but to actively solicit it.

Feedback is a courageous act. Developing the voice to seek feedback throughout their work grows student confidence. Perhaps they are feeling uncertain about the power of the ideas they are considering. Perhaps the student is not certain that an audience would understand the message. There needs to be a reciprocal relationship: the person who gives feedback must be sensitive to the learner and offer feedback that is direct, honest and actionable; the person who receives feedback must trust that the feedback, although sometimes difficult to receive, is being given in the best interest of improving the work itself.

The person giving feedback must be a trusted and credible source. They should be sensitive to where the student is in the journey toward completion. It needs to be constructively stated, attentive to the skills and capabilities of the learner, and small enough to provide a stepping stone for the next chunk of work.

When learners request feedback they need to consider:

  • Who are the best people to give me feedback?
  • Who has credibility and someone I trust?
  • What questions do I have about whether this work is “good enough”?

4. Establish a collection practice where students have ownership over the narrative of their learning.

There is the tantalizing possibility for a deeper level of analysis and learner empowerment where the student deliberately and consistently observes, comments, and communicates patterns of their work over time. What distinguishes the experience for students is the opportunity to go beyond the chronological history of producing work — telling a personal story of where the author of this work has been, where they are at this time, and where they are going. We see them in professional fields of practice such as in design or photography. Certainly we have seen them flourish in many school settings. The pieces are evaluated by a student and their teachers along their learning pathway with the clear goals of demonstrating growth and improving the skills of the learner.

We offer two approaches to help imagine and give shape to this collection practice. First is a regular collection practice over the scope of at least a course or grade level organized in four phases:

  • Collection: work samples being collected;
  • Selection: work samples students choose to represent their story;
  • Reflection: from the author’s perspective, why these work samples were chosen as examples; and
  • Direction: what the student sees as the next steps based on what they have learned from the cumulative demonstration of learning thus far.

As students get into the rhythm of this practice, they are taking increased ownership of: what learning goals they are paying attention to; when and how to collect artifacts; detailed explanation to support reflection that is both candid and growth-oriented; and conferring with teacher and other experts to share reflection and consider next steps.

The second approach focuses at a unit level where students are working on a substantive task or set of goals. Our dear friend and colleague Marie Alcock drafted this formative assessment tool for students to engage at the evaluation table with their teachers to inform student work.

Click here to see the full document based essay formative assessment tool as well as a math example and a blank version if you want to give it a go.

5. Invite Parents to Observe Learning Rather Than Focusing on Grades.

For many of us, the first school artifacts your child eagerly brought home were posted on the refrigerator door and we shared the joy of celebrating the child’s accomplishments. Somehow, as children grow up, we forget the pleasure of looking at the work itself and start to focus on a summary judgement of the work — that being the grade. During the Triage phase of COVID19 as parents are at home and observing their child as an online learner , it is opportune for them to examine the work itself and what it reveals.

Five minutes of focused attention speaks volumes to children. From the early moments when the child says “look what I have done” to the parents’ response “Tell me more about it”, students are learning about how to reflect on their work and use evidence in the work to justify the worthiness of the performance. Parents need to distinguish between skill building and applying skills in an authentic performance.

Children are very sensitive to the judgments from those they love. The mind shift for parents is to learn that the judgments should be more about the quality of the performance and less about the grade. Parents are key to providing incentives to learning that are beyond the grades they receive. For example, they can take the time to really look at the work and ask questions such as:

  • “Tell me more about what you were thinking when you were doing this work.”
  • “I see that you were working on using humor in this work. In what ways do you think it grabbed the audience?”
  • “When I saw XX this in your work, I wondered XX.”

Leadership Implications As We Move Forward

During the Spring of 2020, we put off testing and allowed for a more relaxed grading process. As a result, we found that students continued to learn when they were engaged. We also heard a clarion call from students for the need for more feedback from their teachers. It seems that students were interested in doing the work when they understood its purpose, got feedback on whether they were growing their skills and understanding of the work, and were given the autonomy to make some choices about how and when they would do the work. We reflected some of those insights in the five tenets. However, these tenets must be accompanied by a commitment from leadership in the school. This includes all leaders — teachers, students, coaches, administrators.

Leadership is not always positional. It is reflected by a set of behaviors and activities. While we wait for external policies to change, assessment is a key place where leaders can show respect for students in the process of learning. They need to be responsive to student’s need for affirmation as well as being stretched through constructive critique. The following are some suggested activities that will signal how leadership values the five tenets explored up above:

  1. Design meaningful demonstrations of learning where students are valued partners in the design process.  
  • Coach design works with an emphasis on identifying where students can be brought to the design table.
  • Talk with students about their plans for how they will demonstrate their learning.
  • Become an audience for trial runs on their demonstrations.
  1. Invest time in co-creating rubrics as a learning tool to guide the process. 
  • Check in with some students about how they are using the rubrics in their work.
  • Look at learning plans for time allocated for co-creation.
  • Use a faculty meeting for students to share their perspectives on the use of rubrics.
  1. Put feedback on the front burner.
  • Become another source for offering feedback.
  • Observe teacher/student conferences.
  • Use protocols in faculty meetings to provide time for teachers to give feedback to one another.
  1. Establish a collection practice where students have ownership over the narrative of their learning.
  • Invite students to tell you the story of their learning journey.
  • Ask powerful questions to students that help them reflect on what really matters to them.
  • Celebrate growth over time through exhibitions that include a variety of demonstrations excerpted from portfolios.
  1. Invite parents to observe learning rather than focusing on grades.
  • Invite parents to do guided walk throughs so that you can describe what is happening when students are self-evaluating.
  • Use the student led conference as an opportunity for describing the growth students are making rather than using grades as the indicator.
  • Focus on the big picture goals you have for students such as self-evaluating and engage in these goals as life-long essential skills.  Show examples  of how they demonstrate their capacity to persist, think flexibly, solve problems.


If there is a silver lining in the current pandemic imposed separation from learners, we vividly see the necessity and power of their ability to be self-directed. What is more, learners’ direct involvement as partners with teachers in monitoring and evaluating their work is at the forefront.

Recognizing that fundamental program structures will be the nest for implementing the curriculum and demonstrations of learning, in Part 4 we will examine options for shaping conducive environments in our next blogpost whether online, onsite, or in a hybrid environment. Specifically we will explore choices for making orchestrated decisions regarding schedules, physical and virtual learning spaces, the grouping of learners, and personnel configurations.

Part 1: How Will We Return to School? Curriculum Choices in the Face of COVID19

Part 2: Deciding What to Cut, What to Keep, and What to Create in the Design of Learning Experiences for 2020-21 School Year. Providing a tool to assist local educators in making these important choices.

Part 3: What COVD19 Has Illuminated about the Power of Self-Evaluation to Make Assessment Meaningful

Part 4: Responsive Return Strategies: Crafting Fresh Approaches to Schedules, Grouping of students and teachers and Shaping both physical and virtual learning spaces.

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Eric W White
Eric W White
3 years ago

The idea of virtual learning isn’t new, but forcing it upon an entire student population will certainly alter the way student’s learn and teacher’s teach as we move forward and ultimately change how the learning process occurs once we return to in-person learning full time.