Encouraging self-mastery by shaking up assessment

Haylie Taylor, education consultant and teacher at EducationCity, highlights the importance of independent learning, and how edtech can help schools prioritise regular self-assessment over formal testing

Independent learning has been shown to increase students’ understanding of underlying key concepts and improve outcomes. When effectively delivered, this way of learning has the potential to instil in students a passion and curiosity for learning, as well as the ability to self-critique. Driven in large part by regular self-assessment tasks, independent learning also creates an environment where students can progress at a pace that best suits them, and subsequently leads to self-mastery and enhanced knowledge.

Independent learning is often associated with contemporary pedagogies that place an emphasis on personalised and differentiated content, student-centred learning, and approaches that encourage children to take ownership of the learning process. A review by the Department for Children, Schools and Families has also shown that independent learning strategies have a host of benefits for students, including improved academic performance, increased self-confidence and motivation, and most importantly, can further develop their personal awareness regarding their limitations and ways to improve these areas. In particular, the report found that students who regularly undertake self-assessment “work to higher standards, are more motivated and have higher self-esteem than other children”.

A report from the Department for Children, Schools and Families found that students who regularly undertake self-assessment “work to higher standards, are more motivated and have higher self-esteem than other children”.

A key element in encouraging these improvements stems from four key principles:

  • Planning
  • Self-monitoring
  • Determination over the pace and focus of learning
  • Evaluation

Today, many of these elements are built into edtech resources that promote personalised learning. However, very few platforms incorporate the assessment functionality. Without this, teachers and students are investing their time and energy into furthering their educational experience but are not able to effectively evaluate the impact and fill any gaps in their learning, thus disabling both educators and students to realise their full potential. The role of assessment subsequently prompts questions regarding the pros and cons of formal testing and how self-assessment can be effectively placed within the education landscape.

Formal assessment methods have received a lot of criticism from educators, students and parents over the years and while assessment, in general, plays an important role in education, it is the way in which it is implemented that has cause for concern. Assessment should of course support, not hinder effective teaching and learning and should instead provide a way for teachers and students to reflect on learning concepts and track their progress. It should identify strengths and weaknesses which can then inform future instruction.

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Formal assessment methods, however, often shift the focus of education to simple knowledge recall rather than a nuanced understanding of the foundational concepts which are important as more complex ideas are introduced. This is, in essence, teaching to the test rather that testing to inform teaching, an approach that is fundamentally flawed.

The flaws in this approach position assessment as the end rather than the means, with critics framing formal assessment as testing for the sake of testing and learning for the sake of learning, when both experiences should be so much more.

Stepping away from the regurgitation of knowledge and looking to assessment that makes a positive impact in students’ learning, self-assessment strategies provide insight into how well students have comprehended topics and can help identify gaps in their knowledge. Self-assessment is also crucial in developing student-centred learning and identifying areas that require improvement. Allowing students greater autonomy over their learning means that self-assessment tasks create a learning environment in which they can define their own goals and take the necessary steps to achieve them.

Self-assessment strategies provide insight into how well students have comprehended topics and can help identify gaps in their knowledge.

Research from the University of Reading has also revealed that deeper learning and better judgement skills are additional positive by-products of self-assessment as students must have “an understanding of both the subject matter and the assessment task in order to gauge how well they have met the criteria.” Regarding judgement and self-reflection skills, self-assessment also encourages students to determine the strengths and weaknesses of their work, something which can also extend to other resources. This is particularly useful as students progress through their education and are required to reference source materials.

At a practical level, schools and educators can take steps towards integrating self-assessment techniques through advanced edtech resources. Prior to this, though, it is greatly beneficial to ensure that students are familiar with the concept itself. As outlined in a ‘Guide to Self-Assessment’ published by Trinity College Dublin, “there are several different purposes of self-assessment: to evaluate understanding of the content, to demonstrate the achievement of outcomes and goals and the self-development of the learner”.

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With a stigma surrounding testing and pre-conceived ideas about what the teaching and learning experience embodies, clearly explaining the intention of self-assessment to students and teachers is also important. Outlining the wide-ranging benefits of self-assessment techniques and intentions can also help overcome potential barriers such as feelings of anxiety or a fear of failure, particularly for pupils.

Understanding the benefits of self-assessment and the ways in which it can enhance personalised and independent learning pedagogies leaves little room for critique. Afterall, there is little to dispute when this approach can help promote deeper learning, self-reflection and problem-solving skills, and develop a hunger for learning itself. What’s more, by embracing technological advances and embodying the true purpose of education, pedagogies that integrate self-assessment and independent learning tasks go a long way towards developing students’ desire and ability to think, learn, and take positive action in the world around them.