Susan Norman explains how self-evaluation can help children to take more responsibility for their learning.

At a time when we’re trying to release ourselves (and our students) from more and more testing, it may seem a little inappropriate to suggest yet another approach to the subject. After all, in its crude application, it is an instrument of judgement. One is either a success or a failure. One is better or worse than one’s classmates. And yet testing has a value. It enables students to evaluate how much they have learnt and how much they still have to learn. When we approach testing in this way, it is possible that the harsher external tests also seem less intimidating.

In order for children to judge their progress, they need to know their starting point, how much there is to be learned and how much they know at any given stage.

Goal setting

Before you can set a goal, you need to establish what the subject entails in your allotted timespan, eg give students an overview of what you plan to cover in your geography or maths syllabus this term. Alternatively you might establish what 100 percent of your subject might consist of, eg a language includes vocabulary, grammar, reading, writing, speaking, listening, etc, and 100 percent might realistically be a native speaker of your own age, rather than some impossible image of perfection.

Secondly, of this 100 percent rate of achievement, how much do students actually want to achieve? If they wish to become specialists in this area in later life, their goal may well be near the 100 percent mark, but if all they need to do is get through this exam and move on to other things, then a pass mark may be all that they require.

Some students feel that they need to aim for 100 percent in order to achieve a pass mark or desired grade. This is fine as long as they will be happy with a pass mark and they understand that this is simply a way of motivating themselves. It’s not okay if they’re going to feel disappointed later if they only achieve a pass mark. (One way of checking is to close your eyes and imagine yourself in the future achieving your stated goal. How will you feel? Try 10 percent more… and 10 percent  less. Do either of them feel better?) Usually the system works best if students write down what they actually want to achieve. Eighty percent is much more achievable than 100 percent, which in itself can be a motivating factor.

If appropriate, students can consider two goals: their current goal for this school period (or the exam), and their life goal – what they want to achieve as an adult by a certain time. Ask your students to write down the time/age by which they want to have achieved both goals.

Where am I?

With the scale in place, students can now establish their own current position. With a totally new subject, this may well be zero, but in many cases students bring life experiences that have given them some knowledge, skills or understanding, and it is good if this can be acknowledged. Students can then refer to a self-evaluation sheet at regular intervals to assess and write in their progress. This identifies the areas in which they are doing well, and those that need additional work. Marking in assessment dates highlights whether progress is fast enough, or whether the pace needs to be picked up.

Each time students add to their evaluation sheet, they have the opportunity to amend what they’ve written before. Their understanding of what is involved in learning the subject, what their own position is and what is involved in their evaluation is bound to change over time, and they themselves are likely to realise where some of their initial assessments were unrealistic. The more they do it, the more they come to understand what is involved, and the more they will use the process as a way of helping them take responsibility for their own learning.


So far I’ve been talking about what is involved, and it is quite possible that the system can be explained to students and they then fill in self-evaluation sheets, either working in groups or alone. However, just as learning is usually more effective if it involves physical movement, so this evaluation process comes to life when it involves activity. There are two principal ways in which I do this:

1. A physical scale

The first method involves setting up an imaginary scale in the classroom, where one wall represents zero percent and the opposite wall represents 100 percent. When different aspects of the subject are called out, students move to the place on the scale that represents their self-assessment. In order to get the activity going and diffuse initial embarrassment, I start by calling out completely different activities: football, cooking, Japanese, website building, ice skating, ballet dancing, singing, drawing… and anything that I know individuals who don’t often get recognised could potentially excel at.

I then move onto the items on the real scale – keeping the pace up and not worrying too much about who goes where in the first instance.

After four or five moves, we stop for some input. It’s clear that some people are slightly embarrassed by saying how good they are in public. Some people always rush to the 100 percent and others to the 0 percent because it’s a bit of a joke. Some hang around the middle and hope they won’t be noticed. Others stay with their friends.

But people are different. We all know that some people know more than others, people have had different life experiences, different teachers in different schools, different exposure to books and TV… and we all have a pretty good idea of where we think we are in relation to others. But some might be better at reading and others at listening. Some might find language learning easy, while others are better at another subject. If people who are clearly very good at a subject give themselves very low grades, it makes it difficult for others (who know they are not as good) to claim anything higher, even if they are being objectively more reasonable.

What wer’re interested in here is a realistic appraisal of how much individuals already know, what they want to achieve and, therefore, where to put their effort. Tell students not to worry about other people’s assessments – they should go where they feel is right for them. They’re not committing themselves to a grade for life; they’re just exploring the self-evaluation procedure.

To finish, I run quickly through all the different points on the scale. This gives me (and them) a chance to get a general idea of who has a good grasp of the process before they commit actual self-assessments to paper.

2. The Rickter Scale

My other preferred method is the use the ‘Rickter Scale’ equipment. This is a board with sliders for you to move on a scale from one to ten. The list of criteria being evaluated is changeable, and those that come with the boards tend to relate to emotional and social development (worth looking at in themselves: see ‘Frames of Reference’ at There is something very satisfying about moving the sliders backwards and forwards which somehow enhances the thinking process – you can try the slider out in various places to see how it feels before you commit yourself to a number. The electronic versions of the board also record scores for individuals and allow comparative evaluation.

When I’m in ‘make-do-and-mend-do’ mode (when finances are low), we create our own ‘boards’ using paper printouts of the criteria against the scale of one to ten, and coloured counters (which can be stuck in place with sticky tack). Not quite as satisfying as the originals, but fun nevertheless, and more learner-friendly than simply filling in the score sheets.

Yes but …

What happens if students muck about?

Initially this process can be a bit intimidating, and one common student response is to muck about. Therefore a bit of mucking about is built into the first approach (with people moving physically on the scale), and students are encouraged to try out extremes with the board/counter version to see how they feel.

What happens if students’ evaluations are unrealistic?

Some of them are bound to be. But this is part of the learning process and it only works if it truly is self-evaluation (ie about judging ‘where I am and how much progress I’m making’). I do, however, remind the class as a whole that what they write is purely for their own understanding and will not influence external examiners or potential employers.

The teacher is there as a supporter to offer insights into how questions might be approached, rather than as a judge. So, even if I think they are wildly out in their estimation of what they know, I allow them to write whatever they want – and sometimes I have been chastened to realise that they are much more accurate that I am.

There are loads more ‘yes buts’, just as there are with any teaching situation. This is not a universal panacea. But I have found that the more I truly listen to students, to their opinions and to what they think about their progress, the more they tend to listen to me in turn. Self-evaluation helps them take responsibility for their own learning, and helps me to do my part, which is to let go of some of that responsibility and control. TEX

Susan Norman is Co-Director of SEAL (Society for Effective Affective Learning) and author of numerous books, including two on NLP in language teaching (In Your Hands and Handing Over) and Inspiring Teaching – Introducing SEAL Approaches.