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How to Build Self-Assessment Into Jampacked High School Classes

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 (Flickr/Caleb Roenigk)

Most high school teachers are familiar with students who obsess over every missed point on an assignment. It’s annoying; and many teachers wish students were more focused on the process of learning and their own growth, instead of the final grade. But putting the process front and center can feel difficult in a results-oriented school. While most teachers can’t entirely move away from grades, they can use simple strategies that require students to reflect on their progress, evaluate their work and set goals for improvement.

Helping students learn to evaluate their own work is a crucial skill that taps into their metacognitive abilities. Franklin High School teacher John Leighton has come to see self-assessment as a crucial skill for his history students, one that he intentionally cultivates with three simple strategies.

“If the kids know what they’re working towards, and they know where they stand on the route to get there, they are more likely to get there,” Leighton said at the Building Learning Communities conference held in Boston. He has found that the students who are reflective about their work are generally his best students, so he tries to cultivate that reflex in all students.


Parents often make it into school only once or twice a year, if that, but communication about what’s going on in class doesn’t have to stop there. Leighton has his students email their parents monthly, including him on the emails as well. In each missive the student must give an update on how they are doing in the class, review the content and skills they are learning at that time, and set a goal for the next month. They also have to reflect on how well they met last month’s goal.

“I want parents to see the class through the kids eyes,” Leighton said. He urges students to use data in their emails home and to think of it as an opportunity to make an argument and support it with evidence. When kids set goals, he guides them by asking that the goals be specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-based. “I was very surprised at how detailed the kids were,” Leighton said.

Example of a student email home and the response from her father. (Courtesy John Leighton)

These monthly emails not only serve to keep parents apprised of what’s going on in the classroom, but also give parents a chance to write back, acknowledging their child’s hard work and thoughtfulness. Or, if a student isn’t doing well, these emails can open the door to difficult conversations. “It has filtered out a lot of those surprise emails by parents,” Leighton said.


If a student’s parents don’t have email, Leighton just asks that the student write a note and get it signed by the parent to indicate they’ve read it. If parents don’t read English, the student often speaks both their home language as well as English, so he has them translate. He grades these “student-led conferences” by whether or not the student completed it; He doesn’t focus on the writing or grammar. “This is meant to encourage communication, not ding kids if they’re not good writers,” Leighton said.

He likes this quick self-assessment practice because it keeps students accountable for their work and forces them to reflect on their progress and goals every month.


History is a writing-intensive class, especially for Leighton’s AP U.S. History students, so students practice historical writing both in and out of class. Document-based questions (DBQs) are a big portion of the AP test, so Leighton often starts off by giving students the real AP rubric for DBQs and leading a discussion about what makes a good response. Then he gives them an anonymous essay to grade using the rubric, a tactic designed to dig into the writing in a safe way. “We were able to talk about the writing without anyone being offended,” Leighton said.

Pretty soon students pair-share practice DBQs they did for homework, and they soon realize there are big holes in their writing skills. “My kids really started looking at their writing differently,” Leighton said. As a class they make lists of the common errors; they peer-edit in teams; and they discuss writing all the time.

Leighton does most of this in Google Docs, which he likes because he can see the student’s entire process by looking at “Revision History.” He asks students to include their outline, rough draft and final draft in the same document so he can see how they are incorporating revisions into their writing. And he grades that process as a skill when he assesses their work. “As a teacher it’s a great look behind the curtain,” Leighton said.

The other tool Leighton has found invaluable for pushing self-assessment in writing is Kaizena. This product integrates with Google Classroom and allows for text feedback and recorded audio feedback. “It’s the same stuff I used to write in red ink that they never read,” Leighton said. “But they were listening to it at home.” He’s even had parents come in for parent-teacher conferences who recognized him by his voice because they’d heard their kids listening to his feedback.

Kaizena also allows teachers to make a “lesson” for a piece of feedback that they are giving all the time. It’s a shortcut that can make a difference to teacher grading 140 essays. The tool comes with premade rubrics, but Leighton doesn't use them as much because his school has common rubrics.

One of Leighton’s favorite ways to use Kaizena is after students turn in an essay in Google Classroom. He let’s them go back into what they submitted through Kaizena and make comments on what they would have done differently. Those comments show self-awareness, as kids look at the rubric and evaluate the work they just submitted. “I found this to be a pretty powerful tool for kids to self-advocate,” Leighton said.

This student assessed her own writing after turning it in. (Courtesy John Leighton)


Many of the primary source texts Leighton uses are complex and he doesn’t always know how well students are understanding what they’ve read. That’s why he uses Perusall, a product developed by Harvard professor Eric Mazur, to encourage his students to read collaboratively. Rather than assigning textbook reading, Leighton will upload a PDF to Perusall and assign the students to small groups. He directs them to interact with the text at least five times in the form of questions, answering questions posed by peers, or by expanding on thinking.

“It lets me see their level of understanding long before class starts,” Leighton said. He loves when students help each other make sense of the text through comments and finds that he gets valuable insight into how they are reading. Forcing kids to reflect on one another’s questions and comments adds a deeper layer of analysis to what might otherwise be a dry reading.

“My lower-end kids said they didn’t feel so dumb anymore because ‘I wasn’t the only one who didn’t understand it,’ ” Leighton said. Perusall has a built-in function that evaluates all the questions, comments and interactions from students and gives them a grade on their comprehension. Leighton never uses that as his real grade, but students sometimes find the function motivating, since it adds a gamified aspect to reading.


As Leighton has slowly incorporated these strategies into his otherwise fairly traditional courses, he’s come to see the process of revision and reflection as central to learning. He has also come a long way on allowing students to retake tests to improve their scores. He makes it clear that students have to take the initiative if they want to retake an exam, and he requires them to go over the first test with him and discuss study strategies before they set up a retake date. And he reserves the right not to allow retakes if he feels students are abusing the system, but says out of his 140 students very few take advantage of the offer. The benefit is that kids know that if they put in the work, he’ll support them.

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