Student Empowerment and Self-Assessment

This article with the title “Student Self-Assessment” appeared in Teaching Voices: UNB Bulletin on University Teaching. September 2001. 4-8.

My attempts to encourage students to assess themselves must be seen in the light of the work I have been doing over the last five years to empower students within the classroom. I use the terms empower / empowerment with some trepidation as they clearly belong to another context, that of the feminist liberation movement. However, I use them with great respect and believe strongly that they are useful to describe the movement in Canadian education towards the creation of a route towards life long learning along which students can control their own learning environments to a greater degree. My work towards student empowerment began with enabling students to take some control over the texts they read in class. The methods used for text selection (and I use the word text in its broadest sense) are outlined in my article “Translation and the Web: Collaborative Class Design in the Teaching of Spanish as a Foreign Language.” [ Expo-Enseignement / Teaching Showcase. Revue de L’Université de Ste. Anne. 1997: 69-79.]

I continued my efforts towards student empowerment with the regular surveying of student opinion while courses were in progress. The studies I have done on this theme were outlined in an unpublished paper entitled “THE SURVEY SAYS: Regular Surveys of Student Opinion as a Working Guide to Ongoing Teaching and Learning Effectiveness.” [2nd. Annual UPEI Teaching Symposium. UPEI, August 28, 1998.] In brief, I have attempted to remain aware of student opinion by using regular surveys and to take student ideas of what is, or isn’t, relevant into account while the courses are in progress. As a result of the surveys and SGIDS (I refer to them as Student Generated Instructional Development Sessions although the usual designation is Small Group Insructional development Sessions), I acquired a great interest in developing student creativity within the classroom by using more interactive creative work than ever before. [I outline one aspect of this work in interactive creativity in “An Interactive Approach to the Teaching of Creativity.” Proceedings: Atlantic Universities’ Teaching Showcase, 1998. Halifax: Mount Saint Vincent University, 1999. 121-26.]

Many of the elements of this interactive style of teaching were developed in the Centro de Idiomas, Universidad Autónoma “Benito Juárez” de Oaxaca, Mexico, during the period 1995-1998 while I was working in Oaxaca with the University of New Brunswick / St. Thomas University Oaxaca Exchange Program. Information on some of the results was disseminated during the workshops of the Atlantic Association of Universities Teaching Showcases and in the workshop series LOTUS (Learning Opportunities for Tomorrow’s University Students) which I offered on a lecture tour of Atlantic Canada (January - March, 1998) undertaken with the collaboration of the Association of Atlantic Universities.

Both teacher and learners were pleased with the regular use of SGIDS [The way in which monthly SGIDS led to the creation of a language learning community is outlined in “Mexico Online: The Creation of a Language Learning Community.” Proceedings / Actes: 4th Atlantic Universities’ Teaching Showcase at St. Thomas University, Fredericton, New Brunswick. Halifax: Mount Saint Vincent University Press. 2000: 101-07.] as they enabled students not only to have input into the teaching learning situation, but also to see the effects of their input within the learning and teaching environment. That this method of teaching was effective and that student input into classes was seen in a positive light, is demonstrated by student participation in the 4th AAU Teaching Showcase at Fredericton and the inclusion of a student paper in the Proceedings of that conference. [Lafargue, Chantal and Loretta Macpherson, “Student Generated Instructional Development Sessions: A Proposal for a New Model.” Proceedings / Actes: 4th Atlantic Universities’ Teaching Showcase at St. Thomas University, Fredericton, New Brunswick. Halifax: Mount Saint Vincent University Press. 2000: 81-84.]

Once students have been encouraged to select their texts, to assess their progress and course structure, and to give input into the direction the course will follow, the next step logically is for them to self-evaluate their own progress in the course. This has been going on in my courses now in different ways for the several years. The self-evaluation form is slightly different for each course, but the principles involved are always the same.

In the first place, traditionally, I have calculated 100% of the student’s grade by means of standardized, objective testing. The self-evaluation form, however, now allows a discretionary 10% [This figure can vary from course to course, for example, from Mexico Online 1 to Mexico Online 2 and it usually ranges within a variation of 10-20%. I have standardized it for the purpose of this publication. ] by means of which the student can agree or disagree with the course mark awarded. If the student makes a strong case for a higher (or as has happened on several occasions, a lower grade), then I will consider the student’s arguments and hold a meeting in my office to discuss the proposal for a changed grade in the light of the evidence presented. Whereas some students merely fill in the self-evaluation form, several have compiled impressive course dossiers in which they have outlined the skills developed during the course, the quantity of sometimes invisible work undertaken, and the grounds for requesting a change in grade. Either way, the self-evaluation plays a valuable role as an instrument for reflection on the course and students are often surprised when they list the skills they have acquired and the ways in which they have changed as a result of the teaching method.

As for the self-evaluations, I usually begin with an outline of the paradigm within which the self-evaluation process will take place; first, the calendar definitions of A and B grades:

Within these definitions, the students are invited to self-evaluate themselves in selected areas. The first is in class work. Students are requested to rate their progress, as they perceive it, on a scale from 6 to 1, with 1 being the highest mark they can award themselves. Note that there are is an even set of numbers on the scale so that a student must choose and cannot pick the comfort zone of, for example, 3 out of 5. Assessment areas for Mexico Online (third year) include in class activities and preparation in the areas of listening, speaking, reading, writing, questioning, thinking, and group work. Out of class preparation includes such categories as accessing the www, careful pre-class preparation, intelligent thought, innovation, and creativity. Sometimes, statements are set out in a fuller form; for example: I always prepared everything in advance, work was always completed in advance, grammar was always studied in advance, verbs and tenses were memorized before class, and sentences were always prepared in advance.

I also asked students to assess their overall improvement in Spanish. Categories isolated included: spoken Spanish, net and web skills in Spanish, reading Spanish, and understanding spoken Spanish. Slightly different parameters were set in, for example, the Translation course where I asked students to judge, amongst other things, the effort they had made to work at their Spanish outside the class. Statements included:

As for the course and the course content, I asked the students to assess their own comfort level with their knowledge in the various areas we examined. One year, these included the World Trade Organization, Indigenous Peoples of Latin America, Marriage and divorce,
Genetic enhancement of food, the Pinochet extradition case, whether the USA is a friend or a foe of Latin America, the education system and the individual’s own sense of education before and at university.

These topics were course specific to Mexico Online, and it was necessary to change the categories completely for the Introduction to Translation course at the second year level. Here the students were requested to concentrate on the natural structures of grammar. I divided the course into segments and asked how the students graded themselves, asking questions about areas that included

  • passages translated from Spanish to English,
  • sentences translated from English to Spanish,
  • Spanish Grammar, English Grammar and English vocabulary.

It should be noted that one of the biggest shocks students received was their inability to recognize and use the English words they discovered in the various dictionaries they were using. The enrichment of English by means of the translation course was commented up very powerfully.

Next, I asked the students to assess their own level of active participation in the course.
Again, students ranked themselves according to statements:

  • I was a key member of the course,
  • I participated regularly,
  • I participated intelligently,
  • I worked hard all the time,
  • I challenged myself to improve,
  • I got involved in discussions,
  • I grew as an individual,
  • I learnt to think and to do things for myself, and
  • I continued these debates outside class.

Again, the participation questions were very different for the Translation course which involved a different work structure and an entirely different work ethic. Perhaps the most important and interesting item in the Translation course self-evaluation was the fact that most students saw the improvement in their knowledge of their own language and realized that it came as a direct result of constant work between both languages. [One unsuspected outcome was a steady rise in the purchase of English language dictionaries. This purchasing increased as students realized that even when they did find some terms in a bilingual dictionary (English/Spanish) they still didn’t know what the words meant in English. As a result, the request for speakers to “please define the terms which you are using” became frequent in class in both languages.]

At this stage, the students were ready to self-evaluate themselves. But first, I asked them to establish their own current grade and then to evaluate their own performance in the light of the self-evaluation forms which they had just filled in. Their grades, based on a mark of 90% were available to them. They then had a maximum of an extra ten per cent to add on according to their own opinion of themselves. Most students agreed with the objective per centage which they had received; a few marked themselves up; a suprising number, however, marked themselves lower than their objective grade.Talks that I held with hese students often revealed a poor self-image, often stemming from an earlier bad experience with a second language (usually French) or with a second language teacher.

I was told consistently by the students that the next three instalments of the self-evaluation process were the most difficult to handle. These were


1. If the grade you have given yourself differs from your objective grade, tell me why (in approximately 100 words), you would award yourself a new grade.

2. Bearing in mind the description of the A grade given in the calendar and set out at the start of this self-evaluation exercise, who is the one person with whom you have worked this year to whom you would give an A grade?

3. Describe in about 100 words why you think this person worth an A grade? [In some courses, especially at the upper levels, the A+ grade was inserted here, depending upon student expectations and performance within the course. Note that the self-evaluation template presented here does not permit for the student to actually award themselves marks, although they can challenge and alter the final grade which they will receive. At various times, I have built a variable mark (usually between 10 and 20%) into the course for the students to award themselves based on a similar self-evaluation to this one. ]

The results of the self-evaluations were very pleasing. In the first place, students began to understand the nature of marking and saw it not merely as an arbitrary awarding of grades, but as a difficult process in which both objective and subjective judgement is involved. As a result of this process, the constant clamor for an A grade was quieted and students saw the A grade for what it should be according to the description set out in the calendar: a comparatively rare grade given only to outstanding students. At my university, the classes in the second and third year of languages are relatively small, 35 students in the Translation course and 16 students in Mexico Online. This meant I was able to be in contact with each student, knew each student well, and was able to see that their judgement of themselves was sometimes harsher than my judgement of them.

My fear that they would “take advantage” of this system and all give themselves an A grade, or higher, was completely unfounded. As a bonus for me, the facilitator, I was allowed to discover the behind-the-scenes workings of the course and the secret communications system that students use among themselves to value and judge their peers. When the final results came in, it was remarkable how often the students had given their A grades to the one or two most deserving students in the room!

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