Self-Assessment: A Tool to Create Dialogue and Enhance Learning

Want to streamline learning while empowering your students all at once? Using self-assessment tools is a great way to foster more dialogue and empower students to take charge of their own learning.
Steve Smith Steve Smith
Adult Education Manager
April 08, 2018
Self-Assessment: A Tool to Create Dialogue and Enhance Learning

Self-assessment is  an approach instructors can use to maximize student learning and place students in the driver's seat for their own learning by using a checklist or scorecard.Metaphorically, a self-assessment tool can serve as a topo map for students to see where they are, where they're going, and how much further they have to go to achieve their learning goals.  Most importantly, it can stimulate extremely useful dialogue between instructors and students, especially when their assessments differ.

Students who enroll in Mountaineers programs are presumably self-motivated and eager to learn, so providing them with a tool to self-assess their skills is an effective approach.

Consider the following scenario: Students enrolled in a basic outdoor skills class learn skills one step at a time, with occasional comments and corrections by the instructors. They are given demonstrations of skills, and ample opportunities to practice the skills. This goes on over a series of lectures and field trips, over many weeks. At the end of the program, an assessment happens in which students  demonstrate the skills they were taught. After all the examinations have occurred, two students are pulled aside to be told that they did not pass, which comes as surprise. Everyone else eagerly awaits the announcement of results, and are relieved to learn that they passed! Some in this group were certain that they were going to fail, and were surprised to learn they passed after all.


Based on my experience in several decades of outdoor education, neither the group that failed, nor the group that passed, got as much out of the experience as they could have.

First, the group that failed was caught off guard and did not realize that they were deficient in the skills being assessed.

Second, the group that passed had to wait to be told if they possessed the fundamental skills which they had spent weeks developing – in other words, they should have known, innately, if they possessed the skills, or not.

Neither group was well served by the process. They could have been more engaged in their own learning and taken more responsibility to recognize their own strengths and areas of improvement.

A better approach:  Self-Assessment

One approach that I have seen effectively used, with great success in outdoor education programs, is participant self-assessment. This model is predicated on a few key assumptions, namely that the participants are self-motivated learners, are invested in growing and improving, and able to be accurate and honest (or at least develop the ability to do so) about their own self-assessment of their skills. The idea is to use a self-assessment tool (scorecard, checklist, rubric, etc.) to engage participants in their own learning, put the responsibility in their hands, and create a platform for useful dialogues between participants, instructors, and even peers.

How does it work?

“If the structure does not permit dialogue the structure must be changed.”– Paulo Freire, Philosopher and Educator

Participants have a self-assessment instrument (scorecard, rubric, etc.) which identifies essential skills, and invites them to evaluate themselves on their competence and ability to demonstrate those skills. In a separate column, instructors can offer their own evaluation for those skills. If the instructor and the student disagree about an assessment, that’s often where the most useful learning can take place – and there is a clear and compelling platform which invites that dialogue to occur.

A common concern about having students self-assess is an assumption that they will tend to overestimate their own abilities. In my experience, it’s not always true that participants overestimate their abilities. In fact, often, they will be harder on themselves than their own instructor, which can lead to a dialogue that invites a deeper understanding, builds confidence, or helps the student better recognize their own abilities. This dialogue is one way we can move from unconsciously competent to consciously competent at a given skill (see more about this concept in a future blog!)

Naturally, people come with different levels of self-confidence and it’s possible that a participant might believe themselves to be more capable than they are, which also invites dialogue or opportunity to provide instructional support. Perhaps the student doesn’t understand the concept as well as they thought they did, or how to accurately evaluate their ability to demonstrate it. This student, if receptive to feedback, can stand to gain the most from the opportunity the self-assessment instrument presents them with.

Finally, self-assessment can provide a practical tool for peers to provide feedback and create a collaborative learning experience amongst themselves, as they may have complementary skills or a stronger understanding of the concepts being evaluated. Pairing students together to share their self-assessments and give each other feedback is an effective collaborative learning technique.

On a practical level, the self-assessment tool makes the educator’s job easier. It places more of the responsibility (and a pathway to get there) in the hands of the learner, creates a platform for dialogue to occur, and empowers the participant to meaningfully reflect on their skills as they progress through the course - all of which gives them the opportunity to continually improve and increase their knowledge. As Jean Piaget, a well-known educational theorist,  stated, “students are not empty vessels to be filled with knowledge,” as traditional pedagogical theory had it, “they are active builders of knowledge.

Coming back to the opening scenario, no (adult) student should get to the end of an outdoor skills class and ever have to ask the teacher, “did I pass?” As “active builders of knowledge,” they should know if they have the skills, or not, and be able to say with confidence that they did (or did not) demonstrate those skills. The job of the instructor is to do what’s needed between the beginning of the class, and the test at the end, to help students know what they need to learn, and to take the steps to get there. Using self-assessment as a tool along the way is a vital and useful approach, which has been tried and proven effective many times in outdoor education settings.

Check out this sample self-assessment tool for climbing skills to get an idea of how this tool may help you be a more effective instructor.

Please add comments below!

How do you see self-assessment adding value to your outdoor skills, and what concerns might you have about utilizing this approach?

Photo by Troy Mason.

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Benjamin Brown
Benjamin Brown says:
Apr 11, 2018 09:22 AM

Throwing up some horns for a constructivist approach to learning 🤘!

It is also important, and related to the points above, that learning goals are clear from the start of the class-- students should know *what* they're learning and *why* they're learning it. An easy way for instructors to frame this is by putting the goals in student language: "I can set a bearing on a compass," "I can perform a safety check on my belay partner after tying-in," etc.

Great post, Steve!

Steve Smith
Steve Smith says:
Apr 18, 2018 10:42 AM

Thank you for the thoughtful observations, Benjamin! I agree 100% with your points. If you don't have clear educational outcomes, then your self-assessment efforts probably fall short. Students need to self-assess against a clear set of educational goals, shared between students and instructors. Great comment, and thanks for reading the blog!