Striving for self

Three ways to make self-assessment a regular practice.

7 min read

Voice of the Educator



We can all likely agree that in today’s assessment-focused culture, summative measures get the top billing. Whether it be for comparative purposes at the state level or scoring/grading reasons at the local school and district tier, the summative measure continues to reign supreme.

And yet, if we ask our colleagues whether this should be the case, we get a more muddled answer. Some believe that assessments that signify an end to a term have tremendous value as they provide a benchmark from which to grow moving forward. Some others speak to the value of thinking about assessment as “for” learning, just as much as “of” learning. This idea of formative assessment, basically collecting data to help adjust how learning continues to shift and grow around a given topic or theme, is equally important in our schools — some might say even more so. This competing narrative often pushes us to look at assessment as a tale of two timelines: one form of assessment that we save for the end, another that we incorporate throughout.

Of course, like much in education, this isn’t the full story. While we should certainly strive for balance between these forms of assessment — much like we do in all other areas of our educational lives — we also must make sure that we don’t forget that self-assessment holds an important purpose as well. And, to add to its value, self-assessment needn’t be tied down by time. We can assess our own progress and growth at any time, in any format, under any conditions — if given the opportunity, of course.

So, while the competing narrative of “formative” versus “summative” will likely continue, we also need to build in a chorus of “self-assessment” into whatever work and experiences we help build with our learners. How do we go about doing this? How do we make sure that self-assessment becomes a regularity rather than a rarity? Here are three potential ideas, based on what we have seen to be successful with adult learners.

Expand horizons. When I think of my own learning, one of the necessary stages of growth involves observing others engaged in a practice that I see as life-changing. I tend to see the value of a practice in how it impacts others, and this often helps give me the push I need to make change in my own methods. By forcing me to see how my practice is different and priming me to come to grips with the fact that I need to continuously learn, I am assessing my own ability to support others. I may use a formal instrument such as an observation reflection sheet, or just as often I might visit a workshop in progress and see several great facilitation moves taking place. In both cases, I begin by coming face-to-face with something I am not doing but should, based on outcomes for learners. By then connecting that new practice to my own work, I can determine what shifts I need to make for the practice to be most relevant to my role. My horizons have been expanded through assessing my own work in comparison to the great work of others.

Provide Goldilocks reflection time. There is a lot of truth to the general idea of the Goldilocks Principle. The idea is that elements of our world, such as the conditions for life, have to happen in situations that are always balanced and never too extreme. Take reflection for instance. Reflecting on practice is the best example of self-assessment out there. We can be pushed towards reflection through expanding our horizons or by taking the time to admire the horizon we currently have in front of us. But this thinking, absorbing and reflecting takes time. Consider a sunset, waterfall or bed of flowers; we’ll never really appreciate these fully unless we give ourselves, and our senses, the necessary time to learn all we can from them. And yet, there is a point of diminishing returns. For instance, we can listen to a waterfall for a long time and reflect on all the sounds we hear, but at some point, those sounds start to repeat, or our hearing prowess simply can’t pick anything else up. Much is the same with reflection as self-assessment. We need to provide ourselves with enough time to cement our learning and take action but not so much time, or too little time, that we do neither. In our work with adult learners, we have designed many of our workshops to meet for multiple dates, with anywhere from four to six weeks in-between. This Goldilocks time provides a number of weeks for reflection and a number of weeks to begin trying out new moves. And the multiple meetings? Those provide a little nudge to help make sure that self-assessment takes place.

Give a little nudge. We all need a little bit of forcing in our lives to get good work done. And, depending on the circumstance, sometimes that forcing can be small, while at other times it has to be significant. Though we may have come to view “accountability” as a bad word, it can be quite beneficial when we hold each other accountable through positive and non-evaluative means. For instance, a two-day math institute we held recently provided participants with several practices to try between meeting sessions. The hope was that participants were so jazzed up by what they saw and experienced in the first session that they will be encouraged to experiment prior to the second session. Since a portion of the second day will have participants sharing their experiences trying out these practices, we can apply the pressure of positive accountability to help people assess where they are, what will work for them and what challenges they may still encounter. We can also nudge each other to self-assess in another way. By providing educators with learning surveys after each workshop session, and by linking the completion of these surveys to the workshop hours participants receive, we are “forcing” learners to take the time to at least consider their growth and progress. While we can’t make anyone look internally, we can at least make it valuable to them from a variety of different perspectives.

Certainly, the battle between formative and summative assessment will continue. And certainly, we need both if learners are going to have the most balanced growth experience possible. What we also need in high amounts is assessment focused on the self, assessment that truly forces us to look inward to make change. After all, if we can’t see the value, then we often won’t make the change.

And one great way to see the value in something is to relate it directly back to our own identity.

Fred Ende (@fredende) is the assistant director of Curriculum and Instructional Services for Putnam/Northern Westchester BOCES in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. Fred blogs at, Edutopia, ASCD EDge and SmartBrief Education. His book, Professional Development That Sticks is available from ASCD. Visit his


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