Well-developed self-assessment skills are not only a vital tool for improving student learning, but also a lifelong tool for growth beyond the school. When students practice peer assessment, they become more skilled at critiquing in general and, by extension, better at self-critique. I believe that project-based learning provides rich opportunities for developing students’ assessment skills not only in the process of refining their projects, but also in the presentations of learning that often take place at the culmination of a project, perhaps before an audience appropriate to the project’s focus that is able to give authentic qualitative feedback.
The Ontario Ministry of Education’s 2010 publication on assessment, Growing Success, states: “The primary purpose of assessment is to improve student learning” (6, 28). Yes! However, we as Christian teachers (indeed, hopefully all teachers) have an expansive vision that is not confined to our classrooms, but extends to students’ lives beyond the school environment, lives where we hope they will continue to flourish as producers, creators, and servants. For this reason, we should remind ourselves that self-assessment is a lifelong practice, whereas peer assessment serves to support it, and teacher assessment is only a temporary scaffolding to help develop these skills.
Compliments or Assessment?
I have a confession, and I feel free to make it only because I suspect it may also be true of many others: I want praise and encouragement, but I need assessment. And this desire for applause rather than constructive feedback is probably why I feel more comfortable giving praise and encouragement to my own children, my students, and my colleagues rather than meaningful, helpful assessment. The former helps us feel better; the latter helps us do better. Both are good, of course, and have their place, but I tend to neglect the latter, which often leaves the former sounding insincere and hollow.
As Ron Berger puts it,
We can’t first build the students’ self-esteem and then focus on their work. It is through their own work that their self-esteem will grow. I don’t believe self-esteem is built from compliments. Students who are struggling or producing lousy work know exactly how poor their performance is—compliments never seem genuine. All the self-esteem activities and praise in the world won’t make them feel like proud students until they do something they can value (65).
Modeling and Teaching Qualitative Assessment
Before continuing to the classroom, allow me to give a quick disclaimer: In speaking of my own classroom experiences, I do not in any way wish to hold myself or my own practice up as an exemplar. My hope is rather that we can learn from each other’s mistakes (of which I have an embarrassingly abundant supply to relate) as well as the successes.
I’ll start with a failure, then. In the third week of this semester, I set up my grade 10 class to do some peer assessment of their first drafts of a small project they were working on. Freshly inspired by reading Ron Berger’s An Ethic of Excellence, I had visions of my students excitedly doing redrafts until they left behind their old habits of mediocrity and produced a work of quality craftsmanship, something which made them feel enormously proud and deeply satisfied. I thought I had laid out the expectations quite clearly, giving them only two types of feedback options (“I like . . .” and “I suggest . . .”), and also giving them the usual filter of “Be kind; be specific; be helpful.”
The results were terribly disappointing, with the bulk of the comments being kind, but no more specific or helpful than “I love it!” or “Great!” or the more vapid “Good work.” Mind you, there were also a few unkind, and equally unspecific and unhelpful comments like “This sucks!” or “This is dumb.” Needless to say, the next drafts showed little improvement from the first; not surprising since little direction for improvement had been given.