The Importance of Teaching Effective Self-Assessment

by Stephen Chew, Ph.D., Samford University,

Say we have two students who are in the same classes. For sentimental reasons, I’ll call them Goofus and Gallant[i]. Consider how they each react in the following scenarios.

In General Psychology, their teacher always gives a “clicker question” after each section. The students click in their response and the results are projected for the class to see. The teacher then explains the correct answer. Gallant uses the opportunity to check his understanding of the concept and notes the kind of question the teacher likes to use for quizzes. Goofus thinks clicker questions are a waste of time because they don’t count for anything.

In their math class, the teacher always posts a practice exam about a week before every exam. A day or two before the exam, the teacher posts just the answers, without showing how the problems were solved. Gallant checks his answers and if he gets them wrong, he finds out how to solve those problems from the book, the teacher, or classmates. Goofus checks the answers without first trying to work the problem. He tries to figure out how to work backwards from the answer. He considers that good studying. He memorizes the exact problems on the practice exam and is upset if the problems on the exam don’t match them.

In history class, the teacher returns an essay exam along with the grading rubric. Both boys were marked off for answers the teacher did not find sufficiently detailed and comprehensive. Gallant compares his answer to answers from classmates who scored well on the exam to figure out what he did wrong and how to do better next time. Goofus looks at the exam and decides the teacher gives higher scores to students who write more and use bigger words. For the next exam, he doesn’t change how he studies, but he gives long, repetitive answers and uses fancy words even though he isn’t exactly sure what they mean.

In each case, the teacher offers opportunities for improving metacognitive awareness, but the reactions of the two boys is markedly different. Gallant recognizes the opportunity and takes advantage of it, while Goofus fails to see the usefulness of these opportunities and, when given feedback about his performance, fails to take advantage of it. Just because teachers offer opportunities for improving metacognition does not mean that students recognize the importance of the activities or know how to take advantage of them. What is missing is an understanding of self-assessment, which is fundamental to developing effective metacognition.

For educational purposes, self-assessment occurs when students engage in an activity in order to gain insight into their level of understanding. The activity can be initiated either by the student or the teacher. Furthermore, to qualify as self-assessment, the student must understand and utilize the feedback from the activity. In summary, self-assessment involves students learning the importance and utility of self-assessments, teachers or students creating opportunities for self-assessment, and students learning how to use the results to improve their learning (Kostons, van Gog, & Paas, 2012).

Self-assessment is similar to formative assessment, which refers to any low-stakes activity designed to reveal student learning, but there are key differences (Angelo & Cross, 1993). First, students may undergo a formative assessment without understanding that it is an important learning opportunity. In self-assessment, the student understands and values the activity as an aid to learning. Second, students may not appreciate or use feedback from the formative assessment to improve their learning (Karpicke, Butler, & Roediger, 2009). Successful self-assessment involves using the feedback to identify misconceptions and knowledge gaps, and to hone learning strategies (Kostons et al., 2012). Third, even high stakes, summative assessments can be used for self-assessment. For example, students can use the results of an exam to evaluate how successful their learning strategies were and make modifications in preparation for the next exam. Fourth, formative assessments are usually administered by the teacher. Self-assessment can be initiated by either teachers or students. For example, students may take advantage of chapter review quizzes to test their understanding. If students do not understand the importance of self-assessment and how to do it effectively, they will not take advantage of formative assessment opportunities, and they fail to use feedback to improve their learning.

The importance of learning effective self-assessment is grounded in a sound empirical and theoretical foundation. Teaching students to conduct self-assessment will help them to become aware of and correct faulty metacognition, which in turn should contribute to more successful self-regulated learning (see Pintrich, 2004). Self-assessment also involves student recall and application of information, facilitating learning through the testing effect (see Roediger & Karpicke, 2006, for a review). The proper use of feedback has also been shown to improve student learning (Hattie & Yates, 2014). Finally, self-assessment activities can also provide feedback to teachers on the student level of understanding so that they can adjust their pedagogy accordingly.

Teachers play a critical role in both designing rich activities for self-assessment and also teaching students how to recognize valuable opportunities for self-assessment and to take advantage of them. Some activities are more conducive to self-assessment than others. In the psychology class example above, Goofus doesn’t understand the purpose of the clicker question nor the importance of the feedback. The teacher could have used a richer activity with the clicker questions to promote self-assessment (e.g. Crouch & Mazur, 2001). In the math class scenario, the teacher gives a practice exam, but only gives the correct answer for feedback. Richer feedback would model the reasoning needed to solve the problems (Hattie & Yates, 2014) and support self-assessment. And even when feedback is given, students need to learn how to use the feedback effectively and avoid misconceptions, such as in the history class example where Goofus wrongly concludes the teacher wants longer answers with fancy words.

I believe effective self-assessment is a critical link between assessment activities and improved metacognition. It is link that we teachers often fail to acknowledge. I suspect that effective teachers teach students how to carry out self-assessment on their understanding of course content. Less effective teachers may provide self-assessment opportunities, but they are either not effectively designed, or students may not recognize the importance of these opportunities or know how to take advantage of them.

There is not a lot of research on how to teach effective self-assessment. The existing research tends to focus mainly on the providing self-assessment opportunities and not how to get students to make use of them. I believe research on self-assessment would be highly valuable for teachers. Some of the key research questions are:

  • How can students be convinced of the importance of self-assessment?
  • Can self-assessment improve metacognition and self-regulation?
  • Can self-assessment improve student study strategies?
  • Can self-assessment improve long-term learning?
  • What are the best ways to design and implement self-assessments?
  • When and how often should opportunities for self-assessment be given?
  • What kind of feedback is most effective for different learning goals?
  • How can students be taught to use the feedback from self-assessments effectively?

Two fundamental learning challenges for college students, especially first-year students, are poor metacognitive awareness and poor study strategies (Kornell & Bjork, 2007; McCabe, 2011). The two problems are connected because using a poor study strategy increases false confidence without increasing learning (Bjork, Dunlosky, & Kornell, 2013). Improving both metacognitive awareness and study strategies of students is difficult to do (Susser & McCabe, 2013). I believe a promising but little studied intervention is to teach students the importance and the means of conducting effective self-assessment.


Angelo, T. A. and K. P. Cross (1993). Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers, Jossey-Bass.

Bjork, R. A., Dunlosky, J., & Kornell, N. (2013). Self-regulated learning: Beliefs, techniques, and illusions. Annual Review of Psychology, 64, 417-444.

Crouch, C. H., & Mazur, E. (2001). Peer Instruction: Ten years of experience and results. American Journal of Physics, 69, 970-977.

Hattie, J. A. C., & Yates, G. C. R. (2014). Using feedback to promote learning. In V. Benassi, C. E. Overson, & C. M. Hakala (Eds.). Applying the science of learning in education: Infusing psychological science into the curriculum. Retrieved from the Society for the Teaching of Psychology web site:

Karpicke, J. D., Butler, A. C., & Roediger, H. L. III. (2009). Metacognitive strategies in student learning: Do students practise retrieval when they study on their own? Memory, 17, 471-479.

Kornell, N., & Bjork, R. A. (2007). The promise and perils of self-regulated study. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 6, 219-224.

Kostons, D., van Gog, T., Paas, F. (2012). Training self-assessment and task-selection skills: A cognitive approach to improving self-regulated learning. Learning and Instruction, 22, 121-132.

McCabe, J. (2011). Metacognitive awareness of learning strategies in undergraduates. Memory & Cognition, 39, 462-476.

Pintrich, P. R. (2004). A conceptual framework for assessing motivation and self-regulated learning in college students. Educational Psychology Review, 16, 385-407.

Roediger, H. L., III., & Karpicke, J. D. (2006). The power of testing memory: Basic research and implications for educational practice. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 1, 181-210.

Susser, J. A., & McCabe, J. (2013). From the lab to the dorm room: Metacognitive awareness and use of spaced study. Instructional Science, 41, 345-363.

[i] Goofus and Gallant are trademarked names by Highlights for Children, Inc. No trademark infringement is intended. I use the names under educational fair use. As far as I know, Goofus and Gallant have never demonstrated good and poor metacognition.

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