20 On Self-Assessment

Diane MacEachern and Susan Garner

December 2022

School of Community and Health Studies, Nursing

There are three things extremely hard, steel, a diamond, and to know one’s self.

~ Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard’s Improved Almanac (1750)

This chapter offers just a mere glimpse into a few of the many dimensions of self-assessment…so much to discover, so little time.

Self-assessment, often officially in the form of a clinical self-appraisal, is a cornerstone to nursing education, as is the ability to engage in reflective practice. Teaching students how to feel comfortable in feeling a little vulnerable, how to learn and grow from mistakes, and how to develop skill in reflecting in, on and for practice is critical to many health care (and other) disciplines. As nursing professors, we understand the value of self-assessment. Equally so, we see the need for supporting the development of self-awareness and skills in reflection, both of which play a critical role in the continued development of realistic self-assessment skills.

Although many students are already assessing their work and giving themselves feedback informally (think about proof-reading a paper) it is not a skill that is formally taught in most classrooms. Boud et al. (2013) remind us that one of the core aims of higher education is to support students in developing capacity to make better judgements of their work. If students are not afforded opportunities to develop skill in making accurate assessments of the quality of their work, they may be poorly equipped to access their potential in future professional roles (Boud et al, 2013). According to Black and William (1998) one whom has the ability to make accurate judgments about their work or practice, will not only know how and why their work can be improved, but will have a deeper awareness of their scope of practice. They will also have a sound understanding of personal limitations and how to accesses support when needed (Black & William, 1998, as cited in Boud et al., 2013).

We recognize that self-assessment can be incorporated into the classroom two different ways – Queens University (n.d.) describes a metacognitive strategy whereby students assess their process of learning (through goal-setting, relating tasks back to learning outcomes, and engaging in reflection) and second strategy whereby students assess the product of their learning (through the use of self-rating tools or self-testing).

For the purposes of this chapter, we briefly explore the metacognitive (process) side of self-assessment (the process of learning).

What is self-assessment?

A question we bantered about for several days before agreeing is that no matter how you define, it is a valuable skill that positively influences learning.

Fenwick and Parsons (2009) define self-assessment as “the act of identifying standards or criteria and applying them to one’s own work, and then making a judgment as to whether—or how well—you have met them” (p. 111).

Conrad and Openo (2018) remind us of both the anxiety and resistance that self-assessment may pose (feeling vulnerable makes many of us feel nervous) and the personal growth that may occur if students are supported through the process.

In a respectful, constructivist learning environment – where critical thinking and reflection are valued, learners are actively engaged and feedback is formative and frequent – realistic self-assessment may be nurtured when legitimately or logically used (Conrad & Openo, 2018). A supportive environment provides the learner a safe space that celebrates diversity, recognizes mistakes as learning opportunites, encourages growth through reflection and values different perspectives. Given a chance to self-assess (with clear guidelines and criteria) students may appreciate a chance to think, write or talk less formally about their work rather than focus on more structured learning outcomes (Conrad & Openo, 2018).

What are the benefits of self-assessment?

When self- assessment opportunities are incorporated with learner input, Bourke (2016) identifies that students are more engaged and have a greater understanding of their learning needs. Gains in terms of critical thinking and an ability to deeply reflect on both strengths and weaknesses and interact with others have also been shown (Conrad and Openo, 2018).

Bourke (2016) explains that students who engage in self-assessment become monitors of their own learning and have greater academic success. Bourke refers to this process of monitoring as ‘reflective intelligence’ and links it to the learner’s deep awareness of their learning needs. This results in a greater ability for the student to self-regulate and control what is learned making the learning more meaningful and student focused (Bourke, 2016).

“Developing learners’ ability to self-assess will contribute to an understating of themselves and their learning in a fundamental way, often not possible through other assessment practices” (Bourke, 2016, p. 108).

When students are provided the space to self-assess, the learning environment is altered.  Teachers relinquish some of the traditional power inherent between teacher and student, and in doing so create shared responsibility and accountability. When students are supported through the process, they are more likely to be self-regulating, lifelong learners (Bourke, 2016).

How do we promote realistic self-assessment in our students?

Historical literature suggests that when students are given explicit opportunities, clear criteria and a supportive environment they can learn to accurately judge their own performance, especially those students in more senior years of their academic program. (Boud, 1995; Falchikov & Boud, 1989; Boud & Falchikov, 1989; Dochy, Segers & Sluijsmans, 1999).

Boud et al (2013) offer a clear conceptual background when exploring the development of sound self-assessment skills. Educators are encouraged to consider:

  1. The limitations on developing judgement that are generally present in many courses and assessment practice
  2. The need for the provision of direct, authentic, evaluative experiences over time – (lots of opportunity)
  3. The role of calibrating judgement (with input from experts) and
  4. Timely and effective feedback.

What’s that about feedback?

“Feedback literacy is a capacity that students need for effective learning processes, whereas self-assessment is an important learning practice that students use to monitor and improve learning” (Yan & Carless, 2022, p.1116).

Let’s think about the work of Sadler (1989). In order for feedback to be effective and support realistic self-assessment, it is more meaningful when educators establish the following circumstances:

  1. Knowledge of the standards or clear criteria by which to assess oneself – (ultimately, what counts as “good work”)
  2. The opportunity to compare those standards to one’s own work – (examples of good performance, models, exemplars)
  3. The ability to narrow or close the gap between current performance and desired performance (and how to learn when not to trust the judgements of others!)

As educators should we not ask why feedback is not received well? Could it be how we frame our feedback and how we give it purpose? To further Sadler’s work, Quigley (2021) discussed the need to increase learners’ literacy around how feedback can be received and used for growth. This can be achieved by encouraging educators to discuss with the students the meaning for and purpose of – focusing on growth and improvement.

Importantly, Quigley (2021) encourages educators to provide feedback that is clear, aligns with standards, is dynamic and individualized.  Teachers must remain open for discussion and clarification to guide learners in utilizing feedback (2021).

“During the self-assessment process many opportunities arise for developing feedback literacy, and students with promising levels of feedback literacy are likely to conduct more meaningful self-assessment” (Yan & Carless, 2022, p.1120).

Yan and Carless (2022) offer further support reminding us that a combination of feedback literacy and self-assessment are critical for achieving both self-regulated and lifelong learning.

So much to think about!

And what about the role of reflection in developing strong self-assessments skills?

A primate looking at itself in a mirror.
Photo by Andre Mouton on Pexels

Veine and team (2019) acknowledge the wealth of academic literature demonstrating the value that reflective activities play in reinforcing student learning. In practice, regardless of discipline, students will be faced with unclear, unstable, confusing and complex situations which will require a reflective approach – opportunities to develop skill in reflection become essential.

There is no doubt that developing skill in critical reflection is challenging for many students.

Reflection is so much more than thinking and debriefing – it is also about analyzing, unpacking, deconstructing, and taking things apart to gain deeper understanding. It also involves seeing connections and appreciating varied perspectives (Victorian Early Years Learning Development Framework [VEYLDF], 2017).

Reflection allows one to:

  • recognize and continue good practices
  • change and improve what is not working well
  • challenge practices that are taken for granted
  • monitor all aspects of practice on an ongoing basis
  • know when you need to find more information or support from others. (VEYLDF, 2017).

There is no doubt that reflective practice, as an ongoing and dynamic process, leads to higher quality outcomes and helps develop a strong culture of professional inquiry – we see it in nursing every day. Reflection provides the learner with the opportunity to assess the process of learning. It encourages students to engage in learning at a deeper level and define what success means to them.

Professionals who reflect are more aware of their own values and beliefs and are more likely to challenge and change ineffective practice. The challenge, of course, is that it takes time and effort to embed reflection into our daily professional practice. (VEYLDF, 2017).

How can we support our learners in self-assessment?

The ability to critically appraise one’s performance through self-assessment is integral for meaningful personal and professional growth (Veine, 2019). However, literature informs us that in order for self-assessment to promote growth the learner must be self-aware and be provided the space to recreate meaning (Bourke, 2016). Herein lies the challenge of how educators facilitate deep learning without stifling the construct of meaning.

“It is during the actual process of relating specific situations and evaluations from different perspectives to more abstract conceptualizations that meaning is constructed and learning takes place” (Biggs, 2012, as cited in Veine et al., 2019).

In nursing education, (as in most caring professions) our curriculum is tightly structured and outcomes are closely aligned to professional standards. In other words, we have created a learning environment focused on rigid guidelines and achieving grades. Bourke (2016) encourages educators to offer assessments that guides the learner away from memorizing, structuring, and reproducing to those that promote exploration and allow the student to discover what the learning means to them.

Kolb (1984, as cited in Veine et al., 2019) identified a four-stage cycle to facilitate students in finding the connection between self-awareness and learning. Over time many scholars of education have built on the fundamentals of Kolb’s work, but the foundations remain structural (and we think worth including) to support reflection and self-assessment skills.

  1. The learner has an experience
  2. The learner reflects on the experience – without judgement
  3. Learners transform their knowing and increase perspective (of self and practice)
  4. Apply new meaning to next experience and begin the cycle again

Kolb’s work highlights that it is not the experience itself that influences learning it is the process of finding meaning that furthers the learner’s insight.

The rabbit hole of self-assessment – for further consideration….

Cleary, we have only grazed the surface of this topic! We hope that we have ignited a small spark and we encourage readers to continue to dive into this topic of self-assessment. Future considerations might address how best to support students in developing the myriad of skills necessary to engage in meaningful self-assessment – of both process and product.

Another concept that we discovered was the concept of reflection literacy. We certainly see how it might fit into this discussion, but an exploration is beyond the bounds of this chapter. Feel free to take a peek at the work of Chan and Lee (2021). Their literature review aims to provide an overview of the challenges of encouraging reflection in higher education through a multilevel perspective.

Final Remarks

We see tremendous value in encouraging self-awareness and nurturing the development of independent judgement, particularly of skill and performance. We believe that this ability to self-appraise is necessary as we support both the development of reflective practice and the expectation of lifelong learning in the nursing profession. Supporting students in this journey of learning to engage in meaningful self-assessment requires considerable time, transparency, structure and clarity.

The literature has shown us that by incorporating self -assessment opportunities more intentionally into a supportive, learning environment instructors can encourage and guide learners to assess themselves more effectively. When students are given the space to self-assess and identify their learning needs the momentum for improvement increases.  After all, our goal is to nurture and inspire all students to be curious and open to engage with the learning.


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Boud, D. 1995. Enhancing Learning through Self-Assessment. London: Routledge.

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Victorian Early Years Learning and Development Framework (2017).  Practice Principle Guide – Reflective Practice. State of Victoria – Department of Education and Training. https://www.education.vic.gov.au/Documents/childhood/providers/edcare/veyldframework.pdf

Yan, Z., & Carless, D. (2021). Self-assessment is about more than self: the enabling role of feedback literacy. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 47(7), 1116-1128.   https://doi.org/10.1080/02602938.2021.2001431


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On Self-Assessment Copyright © 2021 by Diane MacEachern and Susan Garner is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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