Make Assessment Meaningful And Empowering

Assessments requiring sophisticated student responses such as writing assignments, debates and/or presentations are recognized for fostering critical thinking and problem solving skills.  However, faced with large class sizes, teachers are overwhelmed by the marking these types of assignments require.  12225331274_fdeb7d98c4_b.jpg

A high school teacher often teaches up to 100 students per semester. If this teacher assigns 100 essays, and spends only 5 minutes per paper this creates 8 hours of additional work. Also, who can mark an essay in 5 minutes?!?!

However, this traditional marking system creates several other issues. Research shows that students learn best from assessment when they receive timely and relevant feedback.  One teacher marking 100 assessments takes a long time and feedback becomes less meaningful as time passes. I also find that the quality of my teaching goes down when I am overloaded with marking. It is difficult to create and execute engaging lessons when you are drowning in paperwork.  Another problem is that students only see their own work.  Seeing and critiquing peers’ work is said to promote deeper analyses of the student’s own work, and leads to better quality work, yet this rarely happens.

I would love to embrace the gradeless movement, but as a high school teacher grades count heavily towards their post-secondary acceptance. Here, in Canada, it seems like the GPA needed for most post-secondary programs is continually rising putting added pressure on our students (but that is a post for another day). Although we can’t eliminate grades in high school, we can provide assessment opportunities that offer our students rich, meaningful feedback. Not everything should be graded, and formative feedback needs to guide our teaching and assessment practices. 

Ultimately, I believe three tools hold the answer to making marking meaningful and manageable: peer assessment, self assessment and assessment of conversations.

Peer Assessment

Peer feedback allows assessments to be marked simultaneously resulting in feedback that saves teachers time and provides students with descriptive feedback in a more timely manner. Assessing other students work is also believed to be connected to improving a student’s understanding of their own work. The assessment process becomes transparent helping students understand how their own work is assessed and graded. This shifts the power dynamic in the classroom so that students have a voice and are equal partners in their own learning.

It is important that peer assessment is confidential. This can be done by assigning random numbers to student work or using an online marking system like Peergrade. The Peergrade system is an online tool that is customizable by the instructor. This allows instructors to make peer assessments confidential. It has the additional feature of providing immediate real time feedback to students while also giving them time to reflect on this feedback. Teachers can create rubrics or use rubrics and lesson plans already designed by the Peergrade team. Teachers can also decide how many students will assess each student’s work. Educators can also see the student’s work before, during and after feedback to see how the work has progressed over time. Also, this tool is free for teachers to use.

Self Assessment

Self-Assessment involves students evaluating their learning progress. Through self-assessment, students apply metacognitive skills to evaluate strengths and gaps in their learning. This can help students in goal-setting, tracking their learning progress and making critical decisions about what areas they need to work on. Personally I have found that self-assessment is most effective when students co-construct the rubric with the teacher. This often results in more student-friendly assessment criteria that is easier for the student to apply. I usually have my students write a max 250 word response explaining their self assessment. One thing I am hoping to try this year, thanks to the suggestion of a colleague, Zack Teitel, is to try out self-assessment as self-marking. Students self-assess their work, provide a detailed reason for their assessment and give themselves a mark. Then, I would look to see if I agree with their assessment or not. If I don’t, then I would have a conversation with the student explaining my viewpoint and the student could explain theirs, and we could decide together what grade they should receive. This again shifts the traditional power dynamic by giving the student a voice. Here is a link to a Google Form Learning Skills Survey that I use for self-assessment of learning skills (designed by my amazing husband


Often our classrooms have very rich conversations that don’t get assessed or ‘count’ for marks. I personally do not think that we should ever ‘mark’ students without telling them or allowing them to prepare. However, I do think that unstructured conversations offer rich assessment tools that we often overlook. In my blog Build A Student-Centred Classroom By Maximizing Student Voice I discussed a number of tools that could be used to promote conversation in the classroom (i.e. fishbowl debates, Socratic Dialogues, Newspaper headlines, etc.). All of these types of conversations can be used as assessments providing that you discuss this with students ahead of time. Here is a link to a Conversation Tracking  sheet that we designed for our Grade 10 History students. I also like using this as a Google Form as I can quickly track it on my IPAD, Computer or phone.

Effectively using peer assessment, self assessment and conversations can transform our classrooms. Before using any of these, it is important that we use assessment criteria with our students and practice using it together. Ultimately, these tools empower students by giving them a voice in their learning and empowering them with the tools they need to succeed.


Paré, D., & Joordens, S. (2008). Peering into large lectures: examining peer and expert mark agreement using peerScholar, an online peer assessment tool. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning,24(6), 526-540. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2729.2008.00290.x

Sadler, P., & Good, E. (2006). The Impact of Self- and Peer-Grading on Student Learning. Educational Assessment,11(1), 1-31. doi:10.1207/s15326977ea1101_1

Schinske, J., & Tanner, K. (2014). Teaching More by Grading Less (or Differently). Cell Biology Education,13(2), 159-166. doi:10.1187/cbe.cbe-14-03-0054

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