Words of Wisdom

The most important thing is to read as much as you can, like I did. It will give you an understanding of what makes good writing and it will enlarge your vocabulary.

— J. K. Rowling

Self-assessment occurs when students assess their own work, either finished or in-progress. This process can benefit faculty by saving them time (since self-assessments are not graded), and it can benefit students as well. Through self-assessment, students improve editing, writing, and critical thinking skills. However, achieving these benefits depends upon self-assessment that is rooted in reflection. In other words, students need to go beyond assigning themselves a grade or a rating. They need to be able to reflect upon and articulate the strengths and weaknesses in their writing and the writing habits that work best to achieve the results they want. While for some, reflection comes naturally, most students must learn to reflect.

Types of Reflection

According to Donald Schon (Educating the Reflective Practitioner, 1987), reflection occurs in stages. Reflection-in-action is actively reflecting, or thinking about a task, or job, while in the midst of it, and then making adjustments in order to improve that task's procedure as a result. Kathleen Blake Yancey (Reflection in the Writing Classroom,1998) builds on Schon's principles and labels them for the writing process in three stages:

  1. Reflection-in-action, which occurs during the writing process;

  2. Constructive reflection, which takes place between and among drafts, or revisions;

  3. Reflection-in-presentation, where formal self-assessment occurs.

Learning to Reflect: Reflection-in-Action and Constructive Reflection

Help students practice reflection about their writing process and products by assigning the following:

Journaling about what happens during the writing process is one way for students to practice reflecting, or thinking, about their writing habits. Perhaps the most effective journal type for reflection is the double-entry or "Dialectical Notebook" as described by Peter Elbow and Pat Belanoff (A Community of Writers: A Workshop Course in Writing, 2nd ed., 1995). With this method the writer divides a page by a center line, or two facing pages in a side bound spiral notebook, in order to put two pieces of writing in "dialogue" with each other. On the right side, the good and bad moments within the writing process might be recorded, the analysis, questions, and/or pertinent portions of a conversation with a fellow writer who provided feedback. On the left side, notes, answers, and/or comments about the first set of notes are recorded.

Logs. Logs are a way for students to reflect in action or to reflect between drafts (constructive reflection), that is, as they write. An effective practice is for them to open a separate word processing file as they write, then toggle back and forth between their document in progress and their log, recording thoughts as they go. In order to promote reflection while students are in the midst of their writing assignments, ask them to:

  • Record moments of indeterminacy, meaning those times when they feel stuck and don't know what to do next. How did they resolve the problem? Or were they able to resolve it?

  • Note when something goes particularly well in the writing process reflecting on the factors that influenced the process. Did a particular revision technique help? Did they brainstorm through a tough spot with a classmate or fellow writer?

  • Answer analysis questions during the writing process of each assignment that might lead to reflection.

Mini essays can be written based on journal or log entries, then used in peer groups to promote discussion about how the writing and drafting process works for different people. Or the mini essay could be a letter or memo to the instructor about the writing process, for example, introducing the document and describing how they wrote it, what problems they solved, and how well they achieved their purpose or targeted their audience. Once students have practiced reflection and perhaps shared with you or with peers, they will be ready for a more formal, written form of self-assessment.

Rubrics. A good rubric helps students understand the criteria used to judge writing. Clear expectations spelled out in a rubric should guide the student into seeing common problems as well as a good performance. It should describe the key elements of the document and describe a low, middle, and high level of performance. Having students fill out a rubric for an actual document can help them operationalize and agree on the criteria for a good to excellent performance. This process of norming (also called calibrating), or coming to agreement as a group on the levels of performance, should be done before a draft is written if possible. Then, once a draft is written, students use the rubric to judge their own performance. This is the same process as is used in peer review, but students look at their own work. Self-assessment with a rubric can be done in place of peer review, especially when students do not trust their peers, but it can also be used in conjunction with it. After students fill out the rubric, they should revise their drafts.

Reflection-in-Presentation, or Formal Self-Assessment

Students who have reflected in action and in construction should be well prepared for reflection-in-presentation, or formal self-assessment. Self-assessment is usually assigned as the final act of a writing project. It is often presented in terms of a "cover letter" or "memo" to the instructor that accompanies a completed product. It could also be presented as a mini essay as described above. It may be helpful to provide prompts that will help students reflect. Prompts can be primarily geared to your course content, in other words focusing on your subject knowledge and what you hoped students would gain from the assignment, with writing specific questions coming in as secondary. Or the writing specific questions can take center stage. Following are some examples of questions often asked in self-assessment prompts:

  • How do you perceive yourself as a writer?

  • What do you like/dislike about your writing?

  • What are your strengths/weaknesses in writing?

  • Is writing important to you? Do you think it will be in the future? What evidence do you have for your answers?

  • How did you feel about this assignment before you started it? Did you think you would enjoy it? Did you think it would be hard, or easy? How did you feel about it when you were finished?

  • What do you like about this particular piece of writing? What would you still like to change?

  • Did any particular revision technique prove useful? If so, how?

  • Who is the audience for your paper? How did you determine the audience? How did the audience affect the way you wrote your paper?

Through guided reflection and self-assessment, students learn more about who they are as writers, thus gaining the skill necessary to think through their own composition problems critically, and improving their abilities to edit and proofread their own work. At the same time students are making these gains for themselves through self-assessment, they often provide teachers with valuable insight into how students learn individually so that teachers might improve their own practice.

Responding to Self-Assessment

None of this has to be graded. The mini essays, journals, or dialectical notebooks could be used in peer response groups to generate conversations about writing and to provide ideas for the more formal reflection-in-presentation. Since the formal self-assessment will most likely accompany a larger work that will be graded, a simple completion grade for the self-assessment is all that is necessary. However, the formal reflection-in-presentation that is turned in with a writing assignment should be read and responded to with marginal comments appropriate to the writer's message; for example, he or she might need a word of encouragement, praise, or empathy. Your comments do not need to be lengthy. A simple "I've been there, and I understand," or "Glad that technique worked for you!" goes a long way with students. Reflection has great potential if you can get students involved and motivated.

Additional Resources

Antlitz, S. E. Reflection During Writing: Questions to Ask About Your Draft.

Notes for Writing a Self-Assessment. The Writing Place, Northwestern University.

Elbow, Peter and Pat Belanoff. A Community of Writers: A Workshop Course in Writing 2nd ed.(New York: McGraw- Hill), 1995. Hillocks, George, Jr. Teaching Writing as Reflective Practice (New York: Teacher's College Press), 1995.

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