Stephen Louw

Trump gives himself a 10

The subtle art of self-evaluation

In the wake of hurricane Maria, the US government got involved with assisting Puerto Rico with its recovery efforts.

In response to a question from a reporter on the effectiveness of this assistance, president Trump awarded himself a perfect 10. That's awesome. But the brazen confidence of Trump's statement and the press commentary that followed brought up a few questions. Was Trump right to be asked to evaluate his (and his country's) efforts? Was his score of 10 justified? Should we take this score seriously?

A good idea?

Similarly, in the classroom, are we right to ask our students to evaluate their own performance? Are the scores students give themselves on their work justifiable? Can we take these scores seriously as part of the students' course scores?

Not a lot of teachers I know use self-evaluation, and perhaps for good reason. There's a worry that students aren't qualified to self-evaluate, that it's the teacher's job (and duty) to allocate and distribute scores in some objective way.

Or teachers may be concerned that students will use the opportunity to 'cheat' in some way and give themselves a perfect 10 when there is reason to suggest that such an accolade is inaccurate. For some teachers (and schools), scores are sacrosanct, and giving students control over them would be unthinkable.

Unbiased feedback

Besides, is there really any benefit in getting students to evaluate themselves? Surely the feedback from the scores given by teacher (or exam) provide a more balanced (and unbiased) form of feedback for the student to gauge their success?

But the fact is that we are all constantly engaging in self-evaluating. For example, look at this frequently asked question:

"Hey Steve, how good is your Thai?"

This is a call to self-evaluate. Now, my response may perhaps depend on my personal confidence, my mood, my need to impress, the context, and the relative meaning of 'good' in comparison to some standard. I might, for example, say:

"Not nearly as good as yours. You order."

or, less self-effacingly:

"It's fine, let me ask how much that banana is."

or, more Trump-like: "I'm fluent, a perfect 10. Let me mediate this border dispute."

Seeing improvement

If self-evaluation is a natural part of our lives, why not include it as part of class life? Proponents of self-evaluation argue that it increases student self-regulation (for example setting goals and monitoring progress), encourages autonomy, develops confidence, and improves students' thinking skills. Being able to accurately assess ourselves is an important part of making sure we know how we can improve.

That being the case, if we use self evaluation, will it be accurate? Is there a risk that students will be motivated to all give themselves that perfect 10 irrespective of the facts; or perhaps grossly underestimate their ability and unjustiably damn themselves to ruin with low scores?

Interestingly, evidence from research (see the reference to Brown and Harris at the end) shows that students seem to be fairly honest, and consistent, with their self-evaluations. There is also evidence to suggest that students enjoy the process of self-evaluation, and that, done right, it leads to positive gains in learning. It all looks rather rosy.

Self-evaluation methods 

So what does 'done right' mean? There are at least two considerations to making self-evaluations work in the classroom. First, self-evaluation is a formative assessment strategy. Formative scores are collected during the term, and become the basis for identifying areas of strength and weakness, and guiding further teaching and learning.

In contrast, summative scores are collected at the end of course course, and summarize the success of the students' learning. For self-evaluation to have any learning potential, it needs to be handled formatively so that the students can use their experience from it to guide further learning.

Second, the self-evaluation task needs to specifically guide or scaffold the students' judgement of their performance. One way might to be give (and train the students to use) a rubric (perhaps like this one) that sets out the desired goal. Or, in this article Pauline Zdonek suggests asking students to complete a chart on specific elements of their work (like why they answered a question incorrectly), so the self-evaluation task guides their thinking.

Or an idea from this article by Richard Watson Todd to get students to compare their writing at the beginning of the course to a similar writing task given at the end, with guiding questions to help them gauge their progress.

In one class, I had to submit a speaking score for nearly 50 students and decided to take a gamble on self-evaluation, primarily to try to reduce the workload for myself (how pragmatic of me, right?).

In pairs, students recorded a semi-scripted dialogue using the recording app on their phones. They then listened to their recording and judged their performance on specific language issues, like the pronunciation of the final 's' sound on plural nouns.

It was noisy and chaotic and I was initially horrified by the fact that I couldn't control what everyone was doing. But the students loved it. They listened to themselves repeatedly, and partners in each pair helped one another with filling in their evaluation forms, making it both a peer and self-evaluation task. After that, whenever I had a dialogue task in class, some pairs would automatically record themselves.

Perhaps we all love self-evaluation, and that's why Trump went on and on (and on) the way he did in that press conference. For those who vilify Trump's inflated score, perhaps we might have got a better answer if the reporter had given him a clear rubric to guide his self-evaluation.

If you want to find out more about the benefits of student self-evaluation in the classroom, I recommend looking at the following summary of the research.
Brown, G. T., & Harris, L. R. (2013). Student self-assessment. The SAGE handbook of research on classroom assessment, 367-393.

Steve has been a teacher and teacher trainer for over 30 years, and is currently a lecturer on the Master’s in TESOL program at King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi in Bangkok.


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