Using Conferences to Improve Students’ Self-Assessment Skills

I’m teaching an 11th grade writing class and my students are finishing up a unit on memoirs. I’m talking to Tomas, a notoriously “lazy” student who rarely turns work in, and when he does, it’s poorly done, showing very little effort. But in these last 6 weeks, something has changed.

While writing his memoir, Tomas has handed in every draft on time and has made deep revisions to his work . His final draft has come a long way and he is obviously feeling very proud of his story. I’m asking him to reflect on the grade he deserves. 

 “So Tomas, after looking at your final draft, what grade would you give yourself?”

 “That’s hard. I kind of want to say 100 because I worked so hard on this,” he says with a laugh, “But I know there are still things I could improve. Like my word choice. I think my vocabulary is kind of weak, so it’s hard for me to use better words, but maybe I could add some similes or imagery to make it pop more. So, yeah. I think it’s good but it’s more like a B than an A.” I’m impressed with Tomas’s ability to hone in on his area of improvement  – this is not something he was able to do in our first meeting. We talk a bit more about his growth and how far he has come. Then I ask him why he worked so hard on this piece. What was different about the process?

 “Well, I really liked our conferences. In the first conference, I was pretty scared because I knew my piece was bad, but you pointed out some strengths and asked me how I could do more. In the conferences you didn’t tell me what to do, you asked me how I could improve. Being able to figure out what I could do to get better helped me feel a lot more confident. After that I really wanted to conference with you and since you said that if we didn’t hand in our rough draft on time we wouldn’t be able to conference with you, I made sure to get it done.”

“So you prefer getting feedback, personally,  in a conference?”

 “Yeah, it makes more sense to me than written feedback does. I like the way you ask questions and let me decide what I need to do. I’m getting  better at assessing my work and deciding how to improve it. I’ve never felt like I could write before and now I do.”

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Teacher conferencing with studentThis was the kind of response I got from all my students the year I decided to flip feedback and stop grading their writing at home. Through a series of questions I pushed them to recognize the strengths of their writing and to decide on the steps they needed to take to improve it, helping them discover how to self-assess their work.. In our last conference I would ask them to evaluate themselves and for the most part their grades were spot on. A few students gave themselves grades that were too low, giving me the opportunity to point out their strengths and let them know how important it is to recognize what they do well. On the other hand, when students gave themselves grades that were too high, they generally confused effort for final product. At this point we could talk about growth, helping them understand tht with perseverance they’d eventually get there, but maybe not immediately.

 Student self-assessment puts them in the driver’s seat and once they take charge of their grades, their entire vision of their education seems to change. When grades are “done to” students they often see them as arbitrary and unfair (which, in all honesty, they often are, especially if things like attitude and attendance are factored in). Moving beyond traditional grading methods, self-assessment allows students to take charge of their own learning journey, fostering a sense of responsibility and ownership. 

However, teaching students to objectively self-assess is difficult. I tried many different methods to help students clearly see their strengths and challenges, but none of them were very effective. It was only when I began consistently conferencing with them that they began to develop self-awareness and critical self-evaluation.

  • Face-to-Face Conversations Facilitate Reflection:  Conferences become a reflective space, allowing students to articulate their thoughts, ask questions, and gain  deeper understanding of their work. These teacher-student exchanges help students assess their work on a deeper level than written feedback would allow.
  • Clarifying Expectations and Criteria: During conferences, teachers can clarify expectations and success criteria, ensuring that students understand what is expected of them. This clarity is essential for self-assessment.
  • Building Confidence Through Positive Reinforcement: Self-assessment is not only about looking at areas to improve, but also recognizing strengths, which is hard for many students to do.  Face-to-face conversations allow teachers to offer positive reinforcement in real-time. This immediate acknowledgment of strengths and achievements boosts students’ confidence and motivates them to identify and celebrate their successes independently.
  • Tailoring Feedback to Individual Needs: During conferences teachers can ensure that students receive the “just right” feedback they need. We can observe facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language to guide us in deciding how much feedback each student needs.
  • Encouraging Goal Setting and Progress Tracking: Student-teacher conferences provide a platform for collaborative goal-setting. By discussing their academic goals with teachers, students gain valuable insights into their progress and next steps. The ability to set and reflect on personal goals is a lifelong skill that extends far beyond the classroom.

Face-to-face conferences are the best tool I’ve found for nurturing students’ self-assessment skills, The real-time dialogue, clarification of expectations, positive reinforcement, personalized feedback, and collaborative goal-setting inherent in these interactions empower students to become active participants in their education. Developing self-assessment skills helps prepare students for a future where self-awareness and adaptability are key to success.

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