In my Fall 2023 Multiethnic American Literature class, I built student self-evaluation into my course structure. In week 2 (of a 15-week semester), students wrote me formal cover letters detailing three learning goals. I called these Letters of Commitment to Yourself, and these first letters were due to me via email on September 13. The reflective self-evaluation letters came later, due December 13, and we had two mid-semester check-ins, on October 13 and November 13, for the sake of symmetry.
Here are the basic parameters for the student self-assessment, worth 20 percent of students’ final grades (replacing what used to be the participation grade):
- One formal Letter of Commitment to Yourself of 750-1,500 words written at the beginning of the semester detailing your three learning goals (personal, academic, and/or practical) for the class and details on how you plan to achieve them.
- One formal letter of 750-1,500 words responding to the Letter of Commitment to Yourself, evaluating your progress toward those goals, the grade you would give yourself, and why.
Instructions with recommended timelines for completing the letters are available here.
Student Cover Letters
In response to the initial cover letters, I gave students some resources about writing to help them tackle tricky problems, and I gave them advice that was sometimes about their social-emotional development (maintaining a positive, growth mindset; building healthy collaborations and relationships with peers) or about practical and logistical matters like showing up to class on time or how to avoid the pitfalls of procrastination and establish good systems for time management. In short, the initial cover letter provided me mentoring opportunities to help students set reasonable expectations (“No, don’t add to your reading list! The way to dive into course material is to slow down and dig deeper. Save further reading recommendations for summer.”), and to help them strategize ways to tackle the hidden curriculum.
What I like most about the cover letter assignment, which other professors like Steven L. Berg have used with success, is that this is a form of writing students will need to use again and again for the rest of their lives. I encourage them to use templates and headers, to dive into examples of good cover letters and learn about the genre of cover letter writing. The instructions include resources for how to do this well. Most of all, the letters give me insight into their lives outside the classroom so I can better understand their needs and priorities, and I try to adjust our syllabus and my lesson plans accordingly to address their learning goals.
For the first mid-semester check-in, I handed out a form that students filled out and turned in to me. I made comments, helping them to see that the grade they assign themselves needs to match the work they put in (students, more often than not, would grade themselves lower than I would, so this was an opportunity to intervene and set reasonable expectations for how this work will translate back into the hierarchical grading system of the institution). Note: all assignments were graded on a labor-based model with 5-6 criteria (and the students sometimes contributed to creating the criteria), resulting in one of three “grades”: Complete, Revise and Resubmit (or Partially Complete), and Incomplete. Students were allowed to revise and resubmit as needed; in some cases, students stopped revising and received a partial completion (50/100). One partial completion did not significantly hinder their success.
For the second mid-semester check-in, I emailed students a friendly reminder to revisit their learning goals. I let them know the percentage of class meetings they had attended and if there were any outstanding assignments needing completion. This helped students, again, to know where they stood in the course and to remember their upcoming self-evaluations. At the end of the semester, they handed in their reflective letters and, in some cases, I offered an override to a higher grade if their peers had given them higher marks on their group work. (A template for my peer evaluation system appears in Susan D. Blum’s edited collection on Ungrading.)
Final Student Self-Evaluations
In December, I got sick and really couldn’t get out of bed for three days. The brain fog was real. I couldn’t have been more grateful to my September self for implementing this plan, especially the mid-semester interventions. Students had already done the bulk of the reflective work, and they had plenty of data to draw from when writing their self-reflective letters evaluating their progress toward their learning goals. They talked about the challenges they faced, when they regrouped and changed their focus, what worked and what didn’t, and they expressed palpable pride in all they had explored and learned about themselves, mostly through the lens of the course content but also in practical ways about how they think, how they write, and how they manage their time best. I was able to simply read these and either agree or disagree with their assessments. I did not have to agonize over grades, and no one complained about their grades in the class. They either earned what they believed they deserved, or I used other evidence (peer evaluations, multiple revisions) to argue for an override to a higher grade. They were in control, they knew what to expect, and with the mid-semester check-ins, I had earned their trust in this process (I asked and they told me that none of their other courses used ungrading models like this one).
Why Use Student Self-Assessment?
Why use student self-assessment?
- It empowers students, puts them in the driver’s seat of their own education;
- Gives students more control over their final grade, reducing anxiety (this is sometimes called “trauma-informed pedagogy”);
- Students can share what’s going on in their lives;
- Every touchpoint is a mentoring opportunity to help students set reasonable expectations, overcome challenges, and take pride in what they’ve done;
- Students grade themselves at the end of the semester—you can read and agree or override based on peer review, reducing time spent grading.
Self-directed learning reduces faculty burnout. As I have written in Hybrid Pedagogy, “It’s common to think that caring for oneself as a contingent faculty member is in direct competition with caring for one’s students, that we must sacrifice our wellbeing to be good teachers. What if it is possible to do both—care for ourselves and our students? It is. And these two forms of care can be achieved from some of the same thoughtful and effective teaching strategies: (inter)active, collaborative learning.”
I hope you’ll try it, and if you do, let me know how it goes! I found the whole process really helped me (and students) to set reasonable expectations and, ultimately, I think we all performed better than we would have otherwise. We certainly ended the semester on a strong note, feeling proud of what we accomplished rather than wishing we could have done more. We learned from the course, and we left with a plan to keep learning.